Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Body in the Dumb River - George Bellairs

1961 is turning out to be a good year for the British Library Crime Classics - I'm currently reading 'The Spoilt Kill' and loving it, and 'The Body in the Dumb River' was a real treat. I'm also coming to love George Bellairs. I don't remember being particularly taken with the first one that I read ('Death of a Busybody') but Surfeit of Suspects was excellent and so is this. I'm happy to see that I've got a couple more waiting for me.

I like Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard - he seems like a long suffering, hard working, patient man who spends his time getting the job done. I love the details that Bellairs puts into his books - there was a beautiful bit where a dog steals a chicken in one scene, and later is unimpressed with the cheese rinds the man it stole from is feeding him. It has nothing to do with the plot, it's hardly even scene setting, it's just a nice touch that made me smile.

The victim is a man called Jim, found stabbed in the back in a flooded river. He was a popular fairground worker who didn't appear to have any enemies - but someone obviously wanted him dead, and (slight spoiler) more investigation unearths an unexpected double life which has Littlejohn travelling back and forth across the country in search of clues.

The charm of this book is a combination of the sympathy you have to end up feeling for the murdered man - not perfect, but essentially decent and trying his best in difficult circumstances, and a pleasingly gothic atmosphere back in his home town. There appearances matter rather more than they ought too - divorce would still be a scandal that would not do, and there's a sense of being trapped between the social norms of a much earlier (almost Victorian) time, and the change that's coming with the modern world.

As Littlejohn closes in on the killer the atmosphere becomes increasingly horrible and threatening, but altogether it's a slow burn sort of a book with plenty of time to enjoy the details (like the thieving dog) that Bellairs decorates his work with. There's also plenty of time to consider some of the social details he touches on.

Bellairs was the pen name of Harold Blundell who was a prominent banker and philanthropist from Manchester. Martin Edwards introduction to this book is enlightening - Bellairs was not well served by his publishers, though fortunately he was well paid enough by his day job to be able to treat writing as a hobby that generated a cash bonus. I can't better Edwards statement that "... his books offer unpretentious entertainment, and that has enduring worth." So much so that sales of his titles have been healthy and there are now 5 of them in the series.

These aren't demanding books, but they're well crafted, enjoyable, and offer fascinating glimpses into their contemporary world. There's also the sense of a really decent man behind the pen - someone who treats even his less appealing characters with a measure of compassion, which makes me want to find out more. There's an appeal at the end of the book from the George Bellairs Literary Estate to join in with building an online Bellairs community which is tempting me to sign up for the newsletter. ( there's even a free ebook thrown in.)

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