The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

The man with two lives…

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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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TBR Thursday 220…

Episode 220

I’m back! As soon as the aliens caught sight of the assembled forces of Tommy, Tuppence and Porpy they fled back to their own sector of the galaxy, squealing! The Kpop stars have promised to stop dancing, and the sun has calmed down to a temperate glow. The world is safe! Well… for the moment anyway. The remarkable thing is that, despite everything, my TBR has gone up, by 2 to 215! My postman is clearly intrepid… 

Here are a few more I’ll be unpacking soon…

History

Brothers York by Thomas Penn

Courtesy of Allen Lane via NetGalley. I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Penn’s earlier book on Henry VII, Winter King, so grabbed this at the first opportunity. My knowledge of the Wars of the Roses really comes more from popular culture than actual histories, not least the notoriously inaccurate (but utterly compelling) Shakespeare plays. So I’m looking forward to learning about the facts behind the legends…

The Blurb says: It is 1461 and England is crippled by civil war. One freezing morning, a teenage boy wins a battle in the Welsh marches, and claims the crown. He is Edward IV, first king of the usurping house of York…

Thomas Penn’s brilliant new telling of the wars of the roses takes us inside a conflict that fractured the nation for more than three decades. During this time, the house of York came to dominate England. At its heart were three charismatic brothers – Edward, George and Richard – who became the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty. Together, they looked invincible. But with Edward’s ascendancy the brothers began to turn on one another, unleashing a catastrophic chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide. The brutal end came at Bosworth Field in 1485, with the death of the youngest, then Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor.

The story of a warring family unable to sustain its influence and power, Brothers York brings to life a dynasty that could have been as magnificent as the Tudors. Its tragedy was that, in the space of one generation, it destroyed itself.

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Dickens at Christmas

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics and another for my Classics Club list. It has long been my tradition to read a Dickens over Christmas and, in fact, as soon as I am appointed Queen of the World by popular acclaim it will be the law that everyone must. This year’s choice is a re-read, but it’s years since I read it so my memory of it is vague. Almost as good as reading it for the first time! And I’m looking forward to reading the intro and notes in my OWC copy – I haven’t read any of the novels in their editions before…

The Blurb says: Set against the backdrop of the Gordon Riots of 1780, Barnaby Rudge is a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution. Through the course of the novel fathers and sons become opposed, apprentices plot against their masters and Protestants clash with Catholics on the streets. And, as London erupts into riot, Barnaby Rudge himself struggles to escape the curse of his own past. With its dramatic descriptions of public violence and private horror, its strange secrets and ghostly doublings, Barnaby Rudge is a powerful, disturbing blend of historical realism and Gothic melodrama.

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Vintage Crime

The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve enjoyed the other novels from George Bellairs which the BL has previously issued, so I’m looking forward to meeting up with Inspector Littlejohn again…

The Blurb says: Jim Teasdale has been drowned in the Dumb River, near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) waterway, has been discovered before the killer intended — disturbed by a torrential flood.

With critical urgency it’s up to Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard to trace the mystery of the unassuming victim’s murder to its source, leaving waves of scandal and sensation in his wake as the hidden, salacious dealings of Jim Teasdale begin to surface.

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Fiction

The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Despite my life-long love affair with Conan Doyle there’s loads of his stuff I’ve never read, including this. Mystery, colonialism and shipwrecked Buddhist monks – what more could you possibly ask? Mind you, the spiritualism aspect is a bit of a worry – Conan Doyle did get a bit obsessed with it sometimes…

The Blurb says: What dark deed from the past haunts Major Heatherstone? Why does he live like a hermit at Cloomber Hall, forbidding his children to venture beyond the estate grounds? Why is he plagued by the sound of a tolling bell, and why does his paranoia rise to frantic levels each year on the fifth of October? With the sudden appearance of three shipwrecked Buddhist monks, the answers to these questions follow close behind.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Gothic thriller unfolds in his native Scotland, in a remote coastal village surrounded by dreary moors. The creator of Sherlock Holmes combines his skill at weaving tales of mystery with his deep fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal. First published in 1889, the novel offers a cautionary view of British colonialism in the form of a captivating story of murder and revenge.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

I’ll be catching up with all your posts and comments over the next couple of days.
I’ve missed you!

Surfeit of Suspects (Inspector Littlejohn 41) by George Bellairs

Big bang…

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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.

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 202…

Episode 202

Aha, you doubters! Last week’s increase was a temporary blip! This week the TBR is back down – by 2 to 222. Cause for celebration…

Here are a few more that will be sashaying off the list soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. A nicely quirky way to tell the story of some of the women recognised by scientists but often not well known to us lesser mortals. I had a quick look at the list of names and am ashamed to admit to only recognising about five of them, so I’m looking forward to learning more about them all…

The Blurb says: Philosophers and poets in times past tried to figure out why the stainless moon “smoothly polished, like a diamond” in Dante’s words, had stains. The agreed solution was that, like a mirror, it reflected the imperfect Earth. Today we smile, but it was a clever way to understand the Moon in a manner that was consistent with the beliefs of their age. The Moon is no longer the “in” thing. We see it as often as the Sun and give it little thought ― we’ve become indifferent. However, the Moon does reflect more than just sunlight. The Moon, or more precisely the nomenclature of lunar craters, still holds up a mirror to an important aspect of human history. Of the 1586 craters that have been named honoring philosophers and scientists, only 28 honor a woman. These 28 women of the Moon present us with an opportunity to meditate on this gap, but perhaps more significantly, they offer us an opportunity to talk about their lives, mostly unknown today.

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Fiction

The book that’s been lingering on my TBR longest, since 20/6/2011, it seems about time I should actually read this one! It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer

The Blurb says: Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley – the wide-eyed Irish heroine of The Observations – takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.

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Classic Adventure

Another of my 20 Books and also one from my Classics Club list. I love Rider Haggard but have read surprisingly few of his books, tending to re-read the same ones again and again. So I’m looking forward to this one, which will be new to me…

The Blurb says: “Nada the Lily” is the thrilling story of the brave Zulu warrior Umslopogaas and his love for the most beautiful of Zulu women, Nada the Lily. Young Umslopogaas, son of the bloodthirsty Zulu king Chaka, is forced to flee when Chaka orders his death. In the adventures that ensue, Umslopogaas is carried away by a lion and then rescued by Galazi, king of an army of ghost-wolves.

Together, Umslopogaas and Galazi fight for glory and honour and to avenge their wrongs. With their fabled weapons, an axe called Groan-Maker and the club Watcher of the Woods, the two men become legendary warriors. But even these two unstoppable heroes may finally have met their match when the Zulu king sends his army of slayers to destroy them!

Although he is more famous for his romances “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885) and “She” (1887), the unjustly neglected “Nada the Lily” (1892) is one of H. Rider Haggard’s finest achievements. “Nada the Lily” is a dazzling blend of adventure, romance, fantasy, and the Gothic, brilliantly weaving fiction and history into an unforgettable tale.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the other books of Bellairs the BL has already published, so am looking forward to meeting Inspector Littlejohn again…

The Blurb says: Following a mysterious explosion, the offices of Excelsior Joinery Company are no more; the 3 directors are killed and the peace of a quiet town in Surrey lies in ruins. When the supposed cause of ignited gas leak is dismissed and the presence of dynamite revealed, Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is summoned to the scene.

But beneath the sleepy veneer of Evingden lies a hotbed of deep-seated grievances. Confounding Littlejohn’s investigation is an impressive cast of suspicious persons, each concealing their own axe to grind.

Bellairs’ novel of small-town grudges with calamitous consequences revels in the abundant possible solutions to the central crime as a masterpiece of misdirection.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

The Dead Shall be Raised & The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs

A twofer…

For some reason, the British Library has given us a double helping in this volume, with two full-size novels both starring Inspector Littlejohn.

The Dead Shall Be Raised

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This is set during WW2 and tells the story of a murder that happened twenty years earlier, during WW1. Inspector Littlejohn has travelled to Yorkshire to spend Christmas with his wife, who is living there to get away from the bombing of London. But no sooner has he arrived than a corpse is dug up, and is soon identified as Enoch Sykes, a young man who disappeared twenty years ago at the same time as his one-time friend Jerry Trickett was found shot dead. The assumption was that Enoch had killed Jerry in a fight over a girl and then fled. But now it appears the case is more complicated and Inspector Littlejohn is happy to work alongside the local police to investigate. Soon it becomes clear that more than one of the locals had reason to resent Enoch and Littlejohn will have to use all his skills to find the murderer.

The book starts off with Littlejohn travelling to Yorkshire by train, immediately giving a great feeling for the restrictions and difficulties of getting around during the war. Once in the village of Hatterworth, the descriptive writing is equally good and we are taken into village life straight away as the Littlejohns attend the parish carol service. When the investigation gets underway we are introduced to the other characters, and Bellairs makes each of them believable, from the old innkeeper who saw the two victims on the night of the crime, to the retired policeman who carried out the original investigation, to old Mrs Sykes, Enoch’s mother, and at the other end of the social scale, Mrs Myles, once their employer. It is deep midwinter, and Bellairs makes us feel the snow and bitter cold as the detectives trudge around talking to witnesses and suspects.

I did enjoy this, but somehow it didn’t completely catch fire for me. It’s very well written and although the pool of suspects is small, the solution is more complex than it first appears that it might be. I think it was maybe that Littlejohn, though likeable enough and certainly good at his job, is a bit bland. I didn’t get much of a feel for what he was thinking or feeling, or of what kind of man he was. That felt a bit strange since all the secondary characters were so well drawn, so it may be that Bellairs was assuming his readers would already know all about Littlejohn from previous books – this, I believe, was the 4th in the series. A 4-star read, then, but it certainly left me keen enough to want to read the other book…

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The Murder of a Quack

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George Bellairs

Since I’m never keen about reading books in the same series immediately after each other, I left a gap of a few months before reading this second one, and found I fell back into the author’s world very happily and was pleased to meet up with Inspector Littlejohn again, so clearly he’d left a better long-term impression than I initially thought he would.

Nathaniel Wall, an elderly, well-regarded bonesetter, is found murdered in his surgery. He has been strangled, then hanged in an attempt to make it look like suicide. The local police promptly call in Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard. This gets off to a great start again, as Bellairs describes the local policeman enjoying a rare moment of peace and then being called out to investigate when Wall’s housekeeper returns from an overnight visit to her sister to find the surgery door locked. Bellairs is really good at creating an atmosphere from the beginning, which immediately leaves the reader wanting to know what happened.

The idea of the bonesetter intrigued me too – something I haven’t come across before. This is again set during WW2 (though the war has no relevance to the plot), before the creation of the National Health Service and before medicine became so strictly regulated. Today we’d think of Wall as an osteopath primarily, though he also dips into other fields of medicine including the more “alternative” one of homeopathy. His family have been bonesetters for generations, though his nephew has succumbed to modernity by qualifying as a doctor. While this nephew is a dedicated professional, the local qualified doctor is a drunken incompetent, who strongly resents that so many locals prefer to visit the “quack” Walls rather than him. It’s an interesting comparison of the skilled but unqualified practitioner and the feckless professional, with all the sympathy going to the former.

The plotting and characterisation are both done well again, as in the first book, but it’s definitely the setting and atmosphere of both that appeals to me, and in this one, I felt I got to know Inspector Littlejohn a little more fully. Well written, above-average police procedurals, and I’ll happily look out for more from Bellairs.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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