Dead March for Penelope Blow by George Bellairs – #RIPXV

This is the third of George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn mysteries I’ve read. I enjoyed the other two (A Knife for Harry Dodd and Death in Room Five), but I think this one is the best so far.

First published in 1951, Dead March for Penelope Blow is set in the small English town of Nesbury, home to the Blow family who live in the big house adjoining the bank which used to be the family business. The novel opens with Penelope Blow, one of the two surviving daughters of old William Blow, the banker, calling at Scotland Yard in the hope of seeing Inspector Littlejohn. Littlejohn, however, is away attending a murder trial and Penelope is forced to return to Nesbury, leaving a message for the Inspector to call her as soon as possible. Unfortunately, before Littlejohn has time to contact her and find out what she had been so desperate to tell him, Penelope falls to her death from a window while leaning out to water flowers in a window box.

As Littlejohn, with the help of his assistant Cromwell, begins to investigate the circumstances of Penelope Blow’s death, an intricate mystery unfolds involving family secrets, wills and inheritances, forgeries and thefts, and a suspected case of poisoning. The novel is carefully plotted, with some clever red herrings, and various revelations coming at just the right points in the story. It’s not really a very original mystery, but I still found it intriguing and although I correctly guessed who did it, I didn’t manage to work everything out before Littlejohn and Cromwell did.

What makes this a particularly enjoyable novel, though, is the strong, almost Dickensian, characterisation (in fact, when Cromwell is listening to the housekeeper, Mrs Buckley, talking about her ‘umble home, he thinks of Uriah Heep from David Copperfield). From Mr Jelley, the frail, elderly butler, and John Slype, the cheerful little window cleaner, to the fierce and beautiful Lenore Blow and her father Captain Broome, whom Littlejohn describes as ‘like a character out of Kipling’, they are all very strongly drawn and each of them, however minor, adds something special to the story. In contrast, Littlejohn and Cromwell are quite ordinary, but I do like them both!

Another interesting thing about this book is that, although it’s set in the post-war period and there are a few references to this (we are reminded that food rationing is still in place, for example), the story feels as though it could have been taking place in a much earlier period. The Blow family almost seem to be frozen in time, with relationships between the male and female members of the household and between servants and employers as rigidly structured as they would have been in Victorian times. The social history aspect of the novel is almost as fascinating as the mystery.

Having enjoyed this one so much, I’m looking forward to reading more from the Littlejohn series!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is my third and final book read for this year’s RIP Challenge.

Death in Room Five by George Bellairs

George Bellairs, author of over fifty crime novels, many of them featuring the character of Inspector Littlejohn, seems to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity recently due to various publishers bringing a selection of his titles back into print. This one, Death in Room Five, is the second I’ve read and like my first, A Knife for Harry Dodd, it has been reissued by Agora Books.

In Death in Room Five, first published in 1955, Inspector Littlejohn is looking forward to taking a break from detective work and enjoying the sun, sea and sand of the French Riviera. His holiday has hardly begun, however, when a party of British tourists arrive, one of them is stabbed to death in the street, and Littlejohn finds himself drawn into a murder investigation. The dead man – the Alderman Dawson, from the fictional English town of Bolchester – appears at first to have been a respectable, honourable pillar of the community, but Littlejohn soon discovers that there is no shortage of people who had reasons to dislike Dawson or to benefit from his death.

This is an interesting and well-constructed murder mystery with plenty of suspects all with a possible motive for wanting Dawson dead. In order to understand the background of each suspect’s relationship with the Alderman, Littlejohn has to make a brief journey back to England to interview the residents of Bolchester (leaving the long-suffering Mrs Littlejohn to continue their holiday alone) but most of the action takes place in the south of France. I loved the beautiful descriptions of the Riviera, and the French setting also allows Bellairs to explore an intriguing motive for the murder – Dawson’s involvement with the French Resistance during the war.

It’s quite a complex mystery and although I didn’t find the solution particularly convincing, I appreciated the way Bellairs misleads us with red herrings and keeps us guessing to the end. However, I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as A Knife for Harry Dodd because I thought the characters in that one were more interesting to read about. Apart from the formidable Mrs Beaumont, I found the characters in this book less memorable and so the novel as a whole was not as entertaining. I did love the setting, though, and was pleased to discover that there are several other Littlejohn mysteries set in France, as well as on the Isle of Man, which is where Bellairs lived after his retirement. I’m looking forward to trying some of them.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Knife for Harry Dodd by George Bellairs

George Bellairs was a very prolific crime author, with over fifty books published between 1941 and 1980. This is the first one I’ve read and I enjoyed it, which means I have a lot to look forward to! Although Bellairs (a pseudonym of Harold Blundell) did write some standalone novels, most of his books were part of his Inspector Littlejohn series of which A Knife for Harry Dodd is the nineteenth. Fortunately, this is not a series which needs to be read in order!

As the title suggests, the novel begins with Harry Dodd being stabbed in the back as he begins to walk home from his local pub one night. Instead of calling the police or an ambulance, Harry summons his girlfriend Dorothy Nicholls and her mother, who immediately set off in the car – with great difficulty, as neither of them can actually drive. Eventually they manage to find Harry and help him into the car, but they are unaware of how badly wounded he is and by the time they get him home he is dead.

Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate the crime and, with the help of his assistant Sergeant Cromwell and the local police, he begins to unravel the secrets of Harry Dodd’s personal life in an effort to identify the murderer. At first, Dorothy and her mother are under suspicion, but the range of suspects soon widens to include another of Harry’s mistresses, his estranged wife and their sons and daughters, and his brother, an influential politician. As the story unfolds, we begin to understand what sort of man Harry Dodd was and the nature of his relationships with the various people in his life. It’s not an easy mystery for the reader to solve, as some of the information we need isn’t provided until later in the book, but I enjoyed following Littlejohn’s investigations and trying to guess who the culprit could be.

Although it’s disappointing that most of the women in the book are portrayed as either silly and helpless or loud and domineering, there’s some great characterisation too. I particularly liked Ishmael Lott, a timid little man who sells parrot seed and dreams of making his fortune on the stock market, and Mr Glass, a patient in an asylum that Littlejohn visits in his search for one of the suspects. In fact, Littlejohn himself is probably the least memorable of all the characters in the book! In a way, I liked the fact that he just gets on with solving the mystery unobtrusively, but it would still have been nice to have known a little bit more about him. Maybe his background is given in the earlier novels and Bellairs assumed he didn’t need to tell us again.

The next Inspector Littlejohn mystery I read will probably be Corpses in Enderby, which I received as a free ebook when signing up for updates from the George Bellairs website. I’m not sure if and when this offer will end, so hurry if you want a free George Bellairs book too!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.