Thursday, May 28, 2020

Surfeit of Suspects - George Bellairs

I'm quite tempted to have a proper binge on British Library Crime Classics - and really there's nothing to stop me apart from a knitting project, and it's getting a bit to hot to eye that with any real enthusiasm.

The first Bellairs I read from this series was 'Death of a Busybody' (3 years ago on holiday in Shetland - it feels like a carefree lifetime ago, we tried to swim in the sea, but it was breath stoppingly cold). I remember liking the book in a general sort of way, but not more than that. 'Surfeit of Suspects' is in a different league for me, largely because it deals with dodgy post war property speculation.

My grandfather did pretty well out of the post war building boom, he started off building a couple of houses with a mate then getting retrospective planning permission for them and went on from there. He was also adept at spotting land that would be a good investment for future building plots, and was happy to hold onto it for decades until it's time came. He had a host of stories about dodgy deals, and underhand doings from his time in the trade.*

The murder in 'Surfeit of Suspects' isn't particularly interesting or mysterious. There's an explosion at the Excelsior Joinery Company in Evingden one winters night. It kills 3 of the company directors, 2 of them seem to have been fairly harmless older men that nobody could have had a problem with, the 3rd appears to have been the intended target.

What is interesting is the setting and the shenanigan's which are revealed. Evingden is turning into a satellite town for London. Development is happening at a fast and furious pace and the whole place is being transformed at an alarming rate. There are a handful of business men who seem to have quite a lot more money than they ought to, and it's not to hard to work out that their dealings haven't been entirely straight.

I see from the back blurb that George Bellairs was the pen name of Harold Blundell, who was a prominent banker and philanthropist from Manchester. It seems likely to me that he was more than familiar with (and rightly disapproving of) the sharp practices and downright illegality of the business practices he describes here. There's also a sense of dismay at the pace of change that's coming to the high streets of towns like Evingden, and downright dislike for the stockbroker Tudor monstrosities of his nouveau riche.

There's also an interesting section where Inspector Littlejohn heads off to interview some old money. The taste it displays might be impeccable, but there's still a sense of distaste for those who have (quite legitimately) sold up in good time and can live in comfort, whilst the poor saps who bought up are struggling with a failing and outdated business.

You can treat at this book as a nostalgic look at an England that's changing. It was published in 1964 and Martin Edwards in his introduction suggests it looks back to an earlier time, feels like it could be inhabiting an earlier time, but I don't quite agree with this. To me it seems very much a book of the 1960's. Bellairs might not view what's happening in town centres up and down the country with any particular enthusiasm, but the kind of development he describes is so very much part of its era and no other. You can see the results of it in shabby small town high streets everywhere, looking every bit of their age now that change has caught up with them again and we all shop online.

I liked this one a lot.

*I don't want to make him sound like a crook, but it would probably be accurate to say he took a Dominic Cummings approach to rules at a time, and in a business, where that wasn't frowned on in the way it would be now.


  1. I like the classic crime, vintage type of reads myself. I've read one book by this author but not this one. Thanks for the review.

  2. It was a fun one, and classic crime is just right for current circumstances!