Book Corner – April 2020 (5)

The Dead Shall Be Raised – George Bellairs

George Bellairs worked in a bank. To relieve the monotony, he wrote when he could and became a prolific, if somewhat underrated, producer of novels and short stories, often featuring his detective creation, Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard. Having only sampled his short stories, courtesy of Martin Edwards’ anthologies of crime stories from the so-called Golden Age, which I enjoyed, I was encouraged to sample one of his novels. The Dead Shall Be Raised was published in 1942, also going by the title of Murder Will Speak.

The first two chapters give us an insight into Bellairs’ style. The first is an atmospheric and slightly comic account of Littlejohn’s train journey in black-out England on Christmas Eve 1940 to the small Pennine town of Hatterworth where his wife is recuperating after their London home suffered a direct hit from a German bomber. The second features a description of a performance of Handel’s Messiah on Christmas Day evening, no slumping in front of the TV watching Strictly and Call the Midwife for them. Handel’s work gives the book its title. The humour is in Bellairs’ eye for detail, in his descriptions of his characters, the clothes they wear, the furniture they surround themselves with and comic juxtapositions, the local magistrate, arriving late for the performance, finds that he has to sit next to two of his regular clients, two incorrigible poachers.

The performance is interrupted by news that the Home Guard, whilst digging trenches on the moor, have unearthed a body, that of Enoch Sykes, popularly thought to have murdered his rival in love, Jeremy Trickett, and scarpered. Obviously, this could not now have been the case and the police, in New Tricks style, decide to reopen the case. Littlejohn is drafted in to help, not least because Superintendent Haworth has (conveniently) sprained his ankle. Any thoughts that Littlejohn had of a quiet Christmas disappear, but he doesn’t put up too much of a struggle about getting involved.

The plot is fairly straightforward, the investigation proceeds through the questioning, in a polite and gentlemanly way, of those still alive who had anything to do with the circumstances leading up to the deaths of Sykes and Trickett, and frankly it doesn’t take much effort to work out whodunnit. But to characterise it as a rather lightweight entertainment doesn’t do the book justice. It is laced with humour and full of insights into the human character.

It also showcases Littlejohn’s methods of detection. He is observant, knowledgeable of human nature and propensities to commit crime. He is rather like Simenon’s Maigret in that respect. Some of his methods wouldn’t pass muster these days but he nails the case with some ease. The trail towards what really happened on the moors of Hatterworth leads to three more deaths. What justice is natural rather than judicial.

I couldn’t help thinking that the moors around which the story is set were the scene of a real-life body search a couple of decades later, when the police were investigating the crimes of Myra Hyndley and Ian Brady, a case of real life imitating art. For those of a sensitive disposition, the novel is very politically incorrect, full of sexism and the odd racist remark. If you can get through that, you will have a pleasant, entertaining read on your hands.     

I shall read and review Murder of a Quack, which is the second novel in the volume, another time.

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