I’ve not read many books by Bellairs, only three others in fact, but I have to admit I’ve not read a dud one yet and today’s post sees my third Bellairs review this year. Suffice to say Bellairs is definitely an author deserving of his reprints.
An explosion at the Excelsior Joinery company, which kills three of its 5 directors, means this book starts with a very literal bang and once it looks to be a case of deliberate arson and murder, Inspector Littlejohn is called into investigate from Scotland Yard. Arson and explosions are not the mainstay of vintage detective fiction, at least not in my reading experience, so this added a novel twist to the plot. It goes without saying that Excelsior was financially on the rocks and on the verge of bankruptcy, but is this more than an insurance scam? Shady financial dealings certainly come into the matter and Bellairs own experience in banking means this part of the book is expertly created and told in a lively fashion. A lot of scrutiny is given to the surviving directors and Littlejohn’s investigation soon leads him to home in on one of the victims; a man for whom his enemies could have formed a long queue.
Police procedurals are not always my cup of tea. Often, they veer towards violence and the nature of the police investigation, when poorly told, creates a rather bland impression for me. Yet, for me, Bellairs is a brilliant example of how to write such a mystery well and without recourse to adding in an amateur sleuth. I think what makes his police investigations so engaging to read, is how they used as a vehicle for the author’s deft characterisation skills. He is adept at including the small or inconsequential detail, which brings the whole scene and characters to life. The opening chapter when the explosion has just occurred and there is chaos is a case in point. Even characters who have little more than walk on parts, lay anchor in your memory, such as this one:
‘They’ve all had it,’ said a man called Prime, who was the Johnny-know-all of Green Lane. And this time he was right.
Even in this tragic set of circumstances Bellairs adds a note of comedy, such as when he relays how the local police inspector was summoned from the local cinema and the reaction it caused.
Moreover, it is through the various interviews with suspects and witnesses, that layers are peeled off the relationships the directors had with each other and other people. Littlejohn does not have an overwhelming personality, but his understated humour prevents him from becoming tedious or dreary. Equally I think his quieter personality makes more space or provides a helpful contrast to the people he is dealing with.
So another good read from Bellairs; an author I definitely recommend everyone trying.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Crime Involved Fire/Arson
* Credit is due to a twitter follower who came up with this great headline. My sole achievement is in not forgetting to use it!