Apologies for my absence from the blogging world. It has not been a voluntary one, but one fateful Saturday afternoon left me with a very defunct laptop. Over the past week and a half I have been awaiting the recovery of my documents and the arrival of a temporary replacement laptop. However I have used my time away well and have a stock of books, films and news to post about. So expect much typing to ensue…
It has been a while since I’ve tackled a novel by Bellair, but I am very glad I picked this one up. The story begins with Penelope Blow desperate to speak to Inspector Littlejohn at Scotland Yard. Unfortunately, he is away, yet according to her she will only tell him what her problem is. After all he has been recommended by Reverend Claplady, a character we meet in another Bellairs’ novel, Death of a Busybody. In the end she asks Littlejohn to ring her at home in Nesbury, but to call for the housekeeper, as this will not arouse suspicion. We don’t have to wonder for long why she is being so secretive as her family are soon on their trail and demanding her swift return home. The family home contains many relatives; a sister called Honoria, who has been ill for some time, two nephews, Ralph and Harold, as well as Lenore, Ralph’s wife. Another sister has been deceased for some time. Chapter 1 has an action packed opening with one sister identified as suffering from arsenic poisoning, whilst the other is found dead, having seemingly fallen out of their window, watering their flowers. Local police deem it an accident, but Littlejohn who has received Penelope’s message does not agree and is determined to dig further, though it seems he will have to do it without the local inspector’s superior realising, as well as investigating without the knowledge of the Blow family, who are not keen for him to poke his nose in. A tontine will, adds an extra level of intrigue into the case, as well as a few other pieces of startling evidence, including family skeletons involving madness.
I feel this book has definitely put Bellairs back on the map for me, as it really shows the author excelling in a number of important areas. The characterisation is near to faultless as anyone can achieve, with the opening chapter being a tour de force in setting up who are the key characters are and their relationships with each other. For me, despite being very elderly, Penelope in this exposition, takes on the heroine’s role usually assigned in sensation fiction of the 19th century. The help she seeks is just out of reach, which leads her back into the clutches of her relatives, abetted by an ex-servant who shopped her in. The dialogue concerning her immediate return home is embedded with unveiled hints of her supposed mental instability, backed up with threats of being put away. The depiction of the medical profession also echoes this earlier subgenre, being self-focused, male and unconcerned over their success rates. An insistence on speaking to the male relatives only, adds to this vibe. This feeling of sensation fiction doesn’t hang around indefinitely but I think it gave the story an atmospheric beginning, concluding with the first chapter’s dramatic ending. Yet whilst these thoughts may cast this book as a fairly bleak book, Bellairs manages instead to deliver a pleasing mixture of comedy and tragedy, aided by his use of minor characters which all add to the plot and are all crafted exceptionally well.
I think the author’s choice of setting also fits with the cast of characters well, in particular the Blow family, who are staged as anachronistic. Nesbury is showing some signs of modernity in the takeover of the local inn and the introduction of council houses. Yet the servants of the Blow household mostly have a yesteryear feel, as does the choice of poison used in the story, potassium arsenite, which the doctor says ‘belongs to the past.’ However, the best quote for representing the stagnation of a place is:
‘It might have been the nineties in Nesbury, instead of half-way through the twentieth century. There was hardly a soul about; a horse harnessed in a cart stood quietly munching on the contents of his nose bag…’
This makes the place feel all the more old-world-y given it is set in post WW2.
From a plot side of things I liked how character elements added into the mystery aspect of the story. Bellairs throws in a clever red herring and works with the money angle to the case well, making it more intriguing and intricate than you’d expect.
Having had such a good experience with Bellairs this time round it would be great to have some recommendations of other strong novels by him.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Timing of the crime is crucial
Calendar of Crime: March (1) Month is in the title
One consequence of my laptop dying was that the review I was in the process of writing was lost. The book in question was Natural Causes (1953) by Henry Cecil. Having only now realised this issue my thoughts are somewhat woolly on the title in question, so have decided to not do a full review. Though I do feel I enjoyed this story more than my last read by this author. Below are the categories this title fulfilled for the two challenges I am doing.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Comic/Humorous Mystery
Calendar of Crime: September (2) Author’s Birth Month