Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)
I first heard of this writer through Curtis Evans’ blog, The Passing Tramp, so I was keen to sample some of Bellairs’ work, some of which the British Library has reprinted. Aside from Death of a Busybody (1942), the British Library are also reprinting The Dead Shall be Raised and Murder of a Quack later this year. George Bellairs was the pseudonym of Harold Blundell, (1902 – 1982) who wrote only as a hobby, otherwise working as a banker. In Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction he reveals that Bellairs, who acted as an air raid warden during WW2, (exempt from military service due to blindness in one eye,) often wrote during blackouts to pass the time. Despite writing only being a hobby, Blundell wrote 62 novels, 58 under the name of Bellairs and the remaining four under the name of Hilary Landon.
The setup of Death of a Busybody will be familiar to any fan of golden age detective fiction, with the action predominantly taking place in and around the village, Hilary Magna. The victim is indeed a busybody, by the name of Ethel Tither, whose quest to root out and remedy sin and transgressions in others, made her as popular as the plague. For Inspector Littlejohn who is called in from Scotland Yard, this is a case with too many suspects, rather than too few. Suspects range from the agnostic Mr Haxley, who resisted Tither’s urges to convert, many young swains aggrieved by her tendency to broadcast their dalliances with the fairer sex, to married couples up in umbrage at her interference and there is even a cousin who was going to be cut out of her will. Her mode of dying is a memorable one to say the least, having been knocked unconscious before being dumped inside Reverend Claplady’s cesspool, which his handyman had been emptying. Not a way anyone would want to go.
I enjoyed Bellairs gently humorous style, which comes across through some of his key characters and their relationships with others. This style begins from the very first page with Reverend Claplady doing his breathing exercises, only to have them ruined by his handyman beginning the work on emptying his cesspool. I think another humour highlight is the interview Littlejohn conducts with Tither’s maid and her fiancée, the latter of which being a member of the Emmanuel Witnesses and has a tendency to interject whenever possible with a psalm-like phrase. The solution to the mystery really comes together in the final third of the story when key pieces of information are unveiled to the Inspector and the reader, though not without a few dramatic incidents along the way. Although set during WW2 the war does not intrude upon the action very much, only really being mentioned in relation to certain characters who have been called up, the introduction of land girls to the area and the fact petrol shortages have led to one taxi driver resuming his horse driven cab.
Religion provides a subtle yet interesting backdrop to the story, as a number of Christian sects come up in the story. Aside from some characters being Emmanuel Witnesses, there are also Calvinists and Tither’s cousin is a missionary. Martin Edwards in his introduction astutely notes that ‘time and again in […Bellairs’] work, he makes clear that he detests sanctimony, hypocrisy and greed, although he makes his points with a light touch.’ This is something which definitely comes through in the story and in regards to religion in this story, you can see that Bellairs is unsupportive of theological hair splitting and the hypocrisy of professed believers, trying to take the speck out their neighbour’s eye but not notice the log in their own. I think it can also be said that Bellairs tries to update the village mystery setting, which is evident in the characters he includes and their individual difficulties and situations. Although a concise writer I think he does create characters with verisimilitude, hinting at the complexity of their relationships. The police investigation is interestingly written, with a well-constructed solution, which is dispelled by degrees and I liked how a crucial alibi was contrived. All in all I’d certainly recommend readers give this mystery a go and I look forward to the next British Library reprint.