The Case of the Famished Parson (1949) by George Bellairs

The story commences late one night at the seaside hotel, the Cape Mervin. The night porter is going about his duties, and we are introduced to the various hotel guests through the rudimentary attention he gives to cleaning their shoes. The night only begins to find an ominous note when we learn that the Bishop of Greyle has left the hotel after having received a mysterious phone call.

By morning he has not returned, and a well-off guest is nearly apoplectic when he finds not only has his shoes not been cleaned, but they are covered in mud; (a plot device we also find in Macdonald Hasting’s Cork in Bottle (1953)). It is not long after this that the Bishop is found – dead at the bottom of Bolter’s Hole. His head has been bashed in, but not from an accidental fall. Thankfully Inspector Littlejohn and his wife, Letty, are staying at the same hotel, and naturally the Inspector is soon invited to lead the investigation.

Overall Thoughts

I am a few reads into Bellairs’ work now, and during this read I found I was noticing typical “traits.” Some of these are very good, such as the attention Bellairs gives his minor characters, making them memorable in a matter of words. They are not overlooked nor looked down upon either, if they are in service or have more menial jobs.

Another common strength in Bellairs’ work is the gentle comedy he infuses his narratives with. For instance, when it comes to the overbearing and demanding rich guest and his “wife”, a short five word sentence brings out the humour in a situation and puts us on the Inspector’s side:

Grace patted and soothed the magnate until he became himself again.

“He’s that worried,” she explained to Littlejohn, especially for the millionaire’s benefit. “Everybody takes advantage of him. And he’s such a generous, kind-hearted darling once you get to know him…”

Mr. Cuhady was lapping it up and smiling sheepishly like a soothed baby-in-arms.

Littlejohn nearly wanted to be sick

Like Death of a Busybody (1942), another Bellairs’ title, this story has a prominent religious figure or two and in the case of the victim, the Bishop, we have the additional mystery of trying to work out why he is so severely undernourished, despite being wealthy. The answer is an unusual one, but it is a shame that it does not feed into the final solution.

This is quite a short read, coming in around 150 pages, but the investigation is not skimped on and Inspector Littlejohn and his colleagues are kept busy until the end. One method Bellairs uses to keep his books short, is that he does not overdo the interviewing of witnesses and suspects. Or rather he does not give us the whole conversation and instead the reader receives pertinent snippets and I felt this approach worked well in this book. We do not necessarily spend lots of time with the suspects and witnesses, but somehow they still leave a firm impression in your mind and I enjoyed Bellairs’ depiction of Inspector Littlejohn’s marriage. Again, a lot is communicated, but in a very concise manner.

Although events begin at the hotel, the case takes Littlejohn to other locations, such as to Greyle, in order to find out more about the victim’s background. Given that there is no obvious motive for the Bishop’s death, this naturally remains the focus of the book, and is perhaps the reason why the story does not focus on the Cape Mervin hotel so intently. Further peril and death keep the plot moving along nicely too.

The final paragraph contains a general spoiler about Bellairs’ writing style and the way in which to spot the correct motive in many of his books. So I would recommend only reading it if you have read a number of his books already.

However, one “trait” I have noticed in a few, (but not all), of Bellairs’ titles is the way that the personal motives are always the red herrings and that the motive to follow is one connected to a wider crime setup. Unfortunately, this means that the genuine solution can feel a little bit forced into the narrative, and also once you’ve clocked it you know where the book is going to head.

This might have been an easy quick read, but it is still a very well told one, and I am planning on reading more by Bellairs soon. So watch this space!

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Agora Books)

See also: Rekha has also reviewed this title here.

6 comments

  1. This was the first Bellairs book I read. 🙂 I am glad you liked it. Waiting to see which book you will pick next. (Apart from the one we would buddy read this coming weekend) 🙂🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the most seminal points about Bellairs, for me, has been that it doesn’t require any effort to identify with the world of the stories he constructs. The settings are realistic. I see myself walking into the rooms in which his characters walk. I make the same mistakes many of his protagonists make. Yet it is still all a mystery, a set of circumstances and events which require explanation. A famished parson is a believable phenomenon. Yet it requires justification in some way. It is never what it appears on the surface. Bones in the Wilderness is a good example of exhibiting how much lies beneath the surface. I’m very partial to George Bellairs books.

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