A crime novel by George Bellairs when he was young and sweet and innocent? Blimey, as his British peers probly said back in the day. But that would have been for his later novels, when he was old and curmudgeonly. I started his Inspector Littlejohn series with the later novels, when Bellairs had become snarky and even nasty in his outlook toward people, making fun of most of his characters in ways that would have made their mothers cry. Being old and curmudgeonly myself, I rather enjoyed most of these verbal caricatures, except when Bellairs’s cartooning pen went for cheap sniggers at the expense of certain minorities, such as Jews and gay stereotypes.
After two such novels, however, in which so many potential suspects could be eliminated because of their harsh treatment by Bellairs, leaving me to focus on the few ordinary characters for murdering motive, opportunity and means—relatively easy peasy--I was about to give up on further adventures of Scotland Yard Inspector Littlejohn—in part also because Bellairs portrayed Littlejohn as little more than a name, with no physical description or personality. But a comment by blogger John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books acquainted me with an earlier Littlejohn mystery he described as, “a real detective novel with a plot that was baffling and engaging. It's a wartime mystery and it dares to break free from the ‘rules’ and detective novel conventions that make it a standout for Bellairs.” So I downloaded the Kindle version of The Dead Shall Be Raised, and agree with everything John said. Plus I now have a better impression of Inspector Littlejohn and some really fine description of the English north country where the story takes place.
We learn that Littlejohn is a “large” man, with no other physical description, but this is more than we’re told in The Case of the Seven Whistlers and Intruder in the Dark, published in 1944 and ‘56 respectively. His wife’s name—Letty—is all we’re given about her in these two novels, altho from his mention of needing to call her occasionally it’s apparent he holds her in high regard. In The Dead Shall Be Raised (originally titled Murder Will Speak), which came out in ‘42 and is set in 1940 during the Nazi bombings of England, we learn early in the first chapter just how high the regard:
No-one but his wife could have persuaded Littlejohn to make such a trip on Christmas Eve. One November night, he had arrived home to find all the windows of his Hampstead flat smashed and the roof blown-in. Far worse, his wife, Letty, was a casualty at the local hospital. Luckily, the worst that German frightfulness had done to her was to cause superficial cuts and slight concussion, but the detective, tied as he was to duty owing to the stress of official work, did not feel happy until he had packed her off to a quiet area.
He’s taking leave to visit Letty in Hatterworth, where she is staying with a friend from her schooldays. His train arrives at the station nearest Hatterworth too late for the bus to that town, but is met by Hatterworth Police Superintendent Haworth, whose wife is Letty’s friend.
Next evening, while all are gathered at the Methodist Church where Haworth is part of the choir performing its annual Messiah concert, a human skeleton is unearthed on the nearby moorland by Home Guardsmen digging a trench. News of this find unrealistically interrupts the concert, sending Haworth and Littlejohn back to the station, where Haworth slips on the icy steps, and sprains his ankle. Littlejohn graciously accepts Haworth’s invitation to supervise the investigation into the twenty-three-year-old murder case unearthed with the bones of the man assumed to have disappeared after presumably killing his one-time best friend over a girl.
Littlejohn’s job is complicated by the dearth of locals still alive who knew the two men and were familiar with circumstances of the case. He’s aided by two former police superintendents—Haworth’s father-in-law and his father, both honorably retired and living nearby. The narrative picks up speed once the game is afoot, and soon the murder of a potential witness in the case makes it clear the killer of at least one of the two rivals is still alive.
Emphasis of the investigation is procedural, with not much whodunnit mystery, as the list of plausible suspects has shrunk over the years, and not much howdunnit, as the first two victims obviously were shotgunned and the third obviously poisoned. The mystery is whydunnit, and without the typical sleight of hand many fictional mysteries deploy to confuse police and readers alike, I found Littlejohn’s incremental discoveries of motive and circumstances leading to the three murders more realistic.
Bellairs goes much easier on the caricaturing in The Dead Shall Be Raised, altho his keen eye for detail is well displayed—sometimes just with a name, such as the Rev. Reginald Gotobed, pastor of Hatterworth Methodist Church. At least Gotobed didn’t have the “fruity” voice of the minister in Intruder or the “oboe” voice of his counterpart in Whistlers.Albeit with only three of the fifty-eight Littlejohn mysteries read, I am getting the impression Bellairs perhaps has some sort of colorful history with clergy.
He gives a glimpse of his later caricaturing with this portrait of Bill o'Three-Fingers, a drunken vagabond who plays a brief but intriguing minor role: “He was an unpleasant-looking customer. A general look of disproportion about his face. His mouth, nose and eyes seemed pushed too near the top of his head. Long, broken nose, weak, receding chin, loose mouth with yellow, broken teeth and a long, sloping upper lip. Like a grotesque tailor’s dummy, constructed with freakish features to attract passers-by.”
Another minor character, the girl whose affections split apart a friendship that ended in their deaths, is described twenty-three years later as, “fat and ungainly, with straight bobbed hair, badly cut, as though some amateur had put a basin over her head and clipped off all not covered by it. A round face, with healthy cheeks, grown puffy, and dark, placid eyes, with a look combining innocence and ignorance. Her figure had gone altogether. Heavy limbs, protruding stomach, great breasts flopping beneath her dress. A hard-working woman, weary with child-bearing and gone to seed before her time. She had five children and her husband was a plumber.”
Bellairs goes easier on Mother Earth. Here he rhapsodizes on Hatterworth as he approaches the town:
...built of local stone, [it] seemed to fit snugly in the general scene. Its long rows of three-storied cottages, its public buildings, chimneys and towers and its open-spaces were ranged along a lower highroad which, from the hillside, seemed a mere thread winding into the distance...In the distance, the white smoke of a train, laboriously mounting the ridge into the heart of West Riding.
And this: “The vast, cold moor was a rare place for holding secrets. A silence seemed to brood over it, punctuated now and then by the cries of birds or the shouts of the Home Guard, still maneuvering vigorously. Even the presence of so many men over the wide expanse seemed powerless to dispel the loneliness. The creeping fingers of the powers of destruction worked unseen, twisting and stunting the vegetation, tearing down the boundaries erected by man, shattering his habitation and sliding relentlessly over fields he had cultivated, dragging them back to the wilderness.”
But then a glimpse of crystalline beauty, with Superintendent Haworth singing his Messiah solo: The busy chapelkeeper opened one of the doors leading from the vestibule into the main street and the exquisite aria floated out into the still Christmas night and seemed to ring across the moorland beyond.
The Dead Shall Be Raised is a short novel, or perhaps a novella, packaged with Murder of a Quack, another short one published the following year. I had intended to read only the first, but I liked it so much I’ve decided to read the other. Not wishing to compete with Yvette Banek of In So Many Words for the title of most Littlejohn mysteries blogged, I just might keep my impressions of that one to myself. We shall see.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]