The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

The man with two lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the body of a man is discovered in the Dumb River in a small town in East Anglia, stabbed through the chest, the local police have a problem. Torrential rain has caused the fenland district to flood and they are fully stretched helping residents and farmers get themselves and their animals to safety. Luckily Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard is in the area and he agrees to take on the murder investigation. The murdered man turns out to be Jim Lane, who runs a hoopla stall and travels around the south of England from fair to fair. A little investigation soon reveals that he has another identity too, though – James Teasdale, a married man from Yorkshire, whose wife and family believe he is a commercial traveller. Littlejohn must discover which of his lives has led to his death…

This is my favourite of the Bellairs novels I’ve read so far. Both settings are handled very well – the flooded fenlands and the hard-drinking, mostly working-class Yorkshire town. Teasdale has married “above” himself, and his selfish wife and her money-grabbing father never let him forget it, making sure that his daughters grow up to look down on him too. So Littlejohn understands why James has developed a second life as Jim the fairground man. Not only does it allow him to make more money than his failing arts and crafts shop in Yorkshire, but in this environment he has the respect of his fellows and is well-liked. Littlejohn rather wonders that he hasn’t broken all ties with his family, but James clearly feels a sense of duty towards them. However, now, as Jim, he has met another woman, one who admires and respects him, and James/Jim’s loyalties are torn.

There is a mystery here, but it’s not really laid out as a traditional whodunit, with lots of suspects with different motives and conflicting clues, and so on. Instead, it’s more of a police procedural, as we follow Littlejohn and his colleague Sergeant Cromwell painstakingly collecting information through interviewing people and putting this together with what the forensic evidence shows. This makes the characterisation particularly important, and it’s done very well. Written in the third person, we mostly see the story from the perspective of Littlejohn, occasionally shifting to Cromwell. Littlejohn seems better developed here for some reason – Bellairs allows us to see his uncertainty as to how to proceed at points, and his dependence on Cromwell as someone with whom to talk things over as well as being a skilled investigator in his own right. But all the secondary characters are very well drawn too – all James’ unlikeable snobbish relatives up in Yorkshire, and the much more sympathetic girlfriend and friends from his fairground life. The flooding adds an extra touch as we see the community come together to help each other, and the harassed local police trying to provide assistance to Littlejohn while dealing with matters that seem more immediately urgent.

George Bellairs

Up in Yorkshire, where the rain is also falling (it is Britain, after all), the hideous family give us quite a bit of humour at their expense, although Bellairs gradually allows both Littlejohn and the reader to see the rather tragic underside of their lives, brought on by themselves and their unjustifiable regard for their “position” admittedly, but nevertheless leaving them rather isolated from their community and even from each other. It’s an excellent, if rather cruel, portrait of selfishness.

At just two hundred pages, it neither outstays its welcome nor leaves the reader feeling short-changed – it’s the perfect length for its plot. Highly recommended, and I hope the BL keeps the Littlejohn novels coming…

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

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32 thoughts on “The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

  1. I’m not much of a crime reader but as an ex-bookseller, I’m so impressed with what the British Library have done with this imprint. Beautifully packaged and well chosen, they have great appeal and are building up a quite a readership, I imagine.

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    • I totally agree – they’ve got the whole package right. And they seem to pay attention to reader reaction – I notice they bring back the authors who’ve attracted positive reviews with the result that they’ve got more consistently good as the series has gone along. One of the intros recently remarked that one of the reissues had sold something like ten times as many copies as the original back in the day which is pretty amazing…

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  2. This is the first Bellairs novel I have been seriously tempted by, as it sounds as if there is a good balance between the back story of the victim, and the inspector gathering evidence to solve the case. I’m not sure how many of the BL re-published novels are on Audable, but I managed to find one of their short story collections the other day when looking for something else, so I’ll have a look for this.

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    • Up to now Bellairs hasn’t been one of my top rank favourites thought they’ve been consistently good, but this one took him up that extra notch – both plot and settings worked perfectly for me. They do seem to be putting more of them out as audiobooks now, so hopefully it will appear soon if it hasn’t already. I’d quite like to try some of them as audiobooks myself one of these days – I find these shorter books hold my concentration better.

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  3. I do like a novel with a solid sense of place and local culture, FictionFan. And James/Jim sounds like an interesting character. So does Littlejohn, actually. Perhaps the mystery isn’t laid out in the the traditional way, but it sounds as though it’s there nonetheless. Looks like the BL got it right again…

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    • Overall I think the BL are getting better and better – they do seem to pay attention to reader reaction so that the authors who get positive reviews get brought back more often. Bellairs hadn’t been in my top rank until now though the previous ones have been consistently good, but this one worked perfectly for me – the settings and characterisation are both great…

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    • It makes such a difference when a crime novel isn’t full of unnecessary padding – reading these vintage novels has really made me realise how overlong most contemporary crime fiction is. This one is excellent – Bellairs is gradually becoming a favourite… 😀

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    • Yes, there’s a similarity to the setting of the Ruth Galloway books, although I’m not sure whether they’re in the same place (my knowledge of British geography is shamefully bad!). 😀

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  4. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but that cover is gorgeous! Do they really give out awards for book cover art? Someone at the BL truly deserves one. The book sounds good, too. 😉

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    • The covers of this series are amazing! I don’t know if there are awards for covers but there certainly should be. I wonder if it’s one person who selects them – they do always seem to match the story very well. That must be a great job… 😀

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  5. The multiple identities of the victim feels like a great premise for a police procedural! I recently read Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, which is quite an old one as well and it reminded me, why I like crime fiction. Like this one, it was a short, no-nonsense read, with some great characters and an appealing setting (Sicily). I am sure, I will get to the Inspector Littlejohn books eventually – this one sounds like a good one to start with.

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    • I loved the multiple identity aspect – it gave a nice variety of suspects, plus the two very different settings. I haven’t read any of Camilleri’s books though I’ve been meaning to for ages. Reading all these older books has really reminded me that crime fiction should be short and to the point to be really effective, and has made me even more impatient with contemporary writers who seem unable to have a passing thought without writing it down…

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    • I can’t think of another book with that premise either and it worked really well, given a good variety of suspects and two very different settings. He’s another of these writers that’s it’s hard to understand why he’s been “forgotten”…

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