Surfeit of Suspects (Inspector Littlejohn 41) by George Bellairs

Big bang…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A huge explosion destroys the offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company, and kills three directors of the company who were there having a meeting at the time. When it turns out that the cause of the explosion was dynamite, the local police call in Scotland Yard to investigate. Enter Inspector Littlejohn…

It soon becomes apparent that the Excelsior was in deep financial trouble and bankruptcy was waiting impatiently in the wings. Could the crime have been an elaborate insurance job? As Littlejohn begins to investigate, he discovers this is only one possible motive. Fraud and corruption are contenders too, and more personal motives may have played a part, since it seems that there were many tensions between the directors, not least that one of them was having an affair with the wife of another. Every line of enquiry seems to turn up more suspects and Littlejohn will have to do some nifty detection to catch the right one.

The setting is very well done, both of the struggling business itself and of the expanding town around it. First published in 1964, fictional Evingden is shown as one of the “new towns” that were created in the decades after WW2, partly to replace bombed out homes and partly to provide “overspill” housing to alleviate the problem of overpopulated areas of poverty and deprivation. It’s no surprise that with so much money being spent this was also a time noted for corruption in local councils and the construction trade, and Bellairs makes full use of this in his plot. The new towns tended to be tacked on to existing small towns or villages, changing their culture and often moving their centres from the old high streets to new developments, much to the annoyance of existing tenants and business owners. Bellairs catches these tensions nicely through his portrayal of the local bank, with its sleepy old branch and tired manager struggling to keep going in the old part of town and the modern, thrusting new branch with its ambitious young manager looking to corner all the new, lucrative business for himself.

George Bellairs

Unfortunately I didn’t find the characters or their motivations as interesting as the setting. We never meet the victims while they’re alive, so only learn about them through other people and, of the three, only one is really fully developed and he’s unlikeable in the extreme. The suspects are better drawn, but are also a deeply unattractive bunch of people. The result was that I didn’t much care about any of them and never found myself fully invested in the criminal being brought to justice. Also, and this is simply an individual preference, I’m never as interested in plots that go so deeply into fraud and corruption as this one, preferring crimes where the motives are more personal. Bellairs does it well, showing how financial desperation can lead people to go off the rails, but I felt it got a bit bogged down in detail at points.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but not as much as the previous Littlejohn stories I’ve read, purely because the story wasn’t as much to my taste. I did feel Littlejohn himself was better developed as a character in this one though, and will be happy to meet him again. Since this is apparently the 41st Littlejohn book, I’ve got plenty more to try!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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21 thoughts on “Surfeit of Suspects (Inspector Littlejohn 41) by George Bellairs

  1. That is an interesting setup for a story, FictionFan. And it sounds as though the socioeconomic changes of the time are done well, too, which gives a nice backdrop to the whole story. I can see the appeal. But, yes, if you don’t have at least one character to like, or at least find interesting, that takes away from the novel. Still, I’m glad you found things to enjoy about the novel.

    • Yes, I thought the setting was excellent and all the stuff about new towns was intriguing, having been written contemporaneously. It’s a good series, this, even if this particular plot didn’t thrill me as much as the others I’ve read. I hope they bring back more of them.

    • Hahaha! Yes, pretty prolific eh? There are always bound to be some where the plot doesn’t appeal as much – even my beloved Agatha Christie only gets four stars occasionally…

  2. I’ve never heard of this series, but 41 books is a lot for someone to have created around 1 character, so Bellairs clearly believed in him. The time and setting of this one sound intriguing. It’s too bad you didn’t have any emotional investment in the characters, as that often makes a difference.

    • I’ve only come across him since the British Library started to re-publish his books. The other two I’ve read worked better for me, simply because I found the plots more interesting. Littlejohn is quite an understated detective – it’s really the setting and the plots that make this series good…

  3. Hmm, this sounds like an intriguing premise, so I’m sorry the characters weren’t flushed out better. With 41 under his belt, he must be doing something right though. Perhaps he had one of those brain freezes (or changed editors or just found the corruption angle more interesting than the characters). At any rate, this is a series I’ll have to check into — thanks!

    • I think it’s usually the settings and plots he does best rather than the characters, and with this one the plot didn’t interest me as much as the others I’ve read. But I still enjoyed the look at the “new towns” – especially since I lived in one at one point of my life so found a lot of what he was saying recognisable. A good, solid series…

    • Hahaha – yes, these vintage authors could churn out books at an alarming rate! It often makes me wonder why contemporary writers seem to take so long – maybe it’s the publishing that’s got slower.

  4. That’s a lot of books in a series! You made me curious enough to look him up and, if I counted correctly, found 54 Littlejohn books! I’m assuming they can be read out of order?

    • Good grief! 54 is a lot! I don’t think I should add them all to the TBR – it might explode! 😉 Yes, they can each be read completely as standalones – like a lot of these vintage mystery series, there’s no underlying story arc and the detective’s personal life rarely makes an appearance. Which I love, but some people hate…

  5. Fraud and corruption can be fascinating in the hands of the right author, but like you I would normally prefer crimes with personal motives. Judging from your review, I don’t think I need to try this one, but of course there are at least 40 others in the series…

    • It’s rare for me to find a book about fraud that really holds my interest – give me jealousy or revenge or greed! I did prefer both of the other ones I’ve read, especially The Murder of a Quack which was set at the time of the start of the National Health Service, which I found much more interesting. Three down, five zillion to go… 😉

  6. I can see why the setting appealed. I haven’t heard very much in fiction or otherwise about the “new towns” being built onto the old ones and all the opportunities for corruption – interesting!

    • I think it was a specifically British thing and all done over a couple of decades. Many of the new towns were hideous cheap housing and awful soulless concrete mazes for the town centres. But some of them have eventually turned out OK and become proper places with their own personalities.

  7. I had no idea there were so many Littlejohn books! I’m sure it would be possible to read nothing but GA crime for the rest of my years and still not have read them all – how does Martin Edwards manage it?!

    • Nor me – I was shocked when I saw this was number 41! I always wonder that about bookish experts of any kind – like these newspaper reviewers who can make reference to the Russians, the French and all British literature since the year dot. I suspect they must have good encyclopaedias… 😉

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