Buddy Read: He’d Rather Be Dead (1945) by George Bellairs

Today I am once more in conversation with fellow blogger Rekha, who writes at the blog Book Decoder. She is an enthusiastic fan of George Bellairs’ stories and would happily have afternoon tea with his creation, Inspector Littlejohn, and his wife Letty. So when we were wondering which title to select for our next buddy read, we decided to return to Bellairs’ work.

For those unfamiliar with the title here is the blurb synopsis:

‘The Mayor of the popular resort of Westcombe, Sir Gideon Ware, is no stranger to making enemies. What was once a quaint little harbour is now miles of level, concrete promenade, and acres of pleasure-beach, embracing every kind of device for human entertainment and sensation. Sir Gideon Ware has put Westcombe on the map through bribes, intimidation and threats. When Ware drops dead in the middle of his annual lunch, no one is surprised to hear that murder is suspected. But with so many enemies surrounding Ware, Inspector Littlejohn has his work cut out shifting through Ware’s past to find the likely killer. Especially with the Chief Constable so keen on covering up vital facts in the investigation.

It becomes clear that Ware was poisoned. But everyone else ate and drank the same things, and no one appeared to have been near enough to Ware to have done the deed.

Before Littlejohn can get to the bottom of it, a second murder is committed… Can he crack the case before more lives are put in jeopardy? Or will the long list of suspects help the killer to get away with it…?’

Before we share our thoughts on this book I must warn you that our comments do contain many large spoilers, so they are best read once you’ve read the story yourself! Unless of course you are one of those befuddling readers who like reading the end of the book before you start the rest of it. In which case such spoilers won’t be a detrimental to your reading enjoyment!

Rekha: What a brilliant story! I have been a fan of Bellairs’ writing but with this book, I think I am an even bigger fan now.

Kate: As you know I have also recently read The Case of the Famished Parson by Bellairs, and one of the main things which struck me with today’s read, is how much it deviates away from “typical” Bellairs. Not that this is a bad thing!

Rekha: I have read a handful from the Littlejohn series so far. The endings might be in the usual Bellairs style, but I have seen many stories not following his usual pattern, like, in Calamity at Harwood. We see the victim die after being attacked by poltergeists. As in, the poltergeists force the man to jump into an icy cold pool naked and the poor chap somehow returns to one of his tenant’s kitchen, only to rush out of the house, fall down the stairs and break his neck. Later, we learn the ‘murder’ had nothing to do with poltergeists. There’s actually a spy angle to this story.

I got a little carried away over there. Coming back to the book in discussion. Leave it to Bellairs for dramatic events leading up to a murder. Sir Gideon Ware is hosting a lunch for his corporation officials; the men with whom he’s had a tiff recently. Dining with the enemy has never ended well, has it?

Kate: Yes, Ware certainly should have known better! I enjoyed how Bellairs takes the dignity and gravitas out of the mayoral banquet, revealing human folly and silliness instead. In contrast to several other stories by Bellairs, including The Case of the Famished Parson, Bellairs begins the story by introducing the murder victim first, rather than an incidental minor character. Nevertheless, Bellairs still shows his consistent skill in giving the reader a strong impression of a character in a few sentences.

In keeping with other classic crime novels such as Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, Bellairs explores how benevolence is not always benevolent! Ware has radically transformed the seaside resort of Westcombe, but the narrative does not seem to suggest that these changes are for the better. The incessant holiday atmosphere becomes something of a struggle for the residents, and despite it being a time of war, there is a feeling of unhealthy excess.

Rekha: Yes, Sir Gideon might have brought a lot of changes to Westcombe but the people do not appreciate it. I think it was Detective Inspector Hazard who said Westcombe was a sleepy little fishing village before Gideon came over and made changes.

The administration of strychnine into Ware’s bloodstream is surely the best part of this murder mystery. Nothing in the food or drinks. Even his cigar is tested for remnants of the poison but nothing there either. An injection given inside the mouth will not be found out during the autopsy. What a brilliant way to kill someone!

Kate: This element is another “non-typical” feature of the story, as I don’t normally associate Bellairs with unusual murder methods. But this one is out of the ordinary and is quite cleverly used in conjunction with a red herring. Ware’s last words are also amusingly ironic – ‘I’d rather be dead!’ Wish granted! I also felt that the second murder in the book is very inventive and chilling, adding a sinister tone we do not tend to find in a Bellairs novel.

Rekha: I agree with you on the unusual murder method. In all the books I have read so far, it is either death by drowning, stabbing or conking on the head. Death by poison – and the way it was administered – this is something new. I think Bellairs had some interest in the field of medicine. There have been references to homeopathic medicines in two of his books, (the ones I read so far, that is). Injecting adrenaline and then poison so that there is some delay before the poison starts his work in the body – we can google about this – but back then Bellairs would have needed to ask someone or refer to a book or something…

Rekha: Boumphrey plays quite a role! He didn’t blackmail Ware but took advantage of knowing a secret about Ware.

Kate: Chief Constable Boumphrey, despite being on the periphery of the narrative, is a very intriguing, unusual and important character. We are told early in the story that he was a:

‘keen student of other Chief Constables and their methods, from the highlights of detective fiction to men like M Chiappe, deceased, and Herr Himmler, unfortunately still alive.’

In light of this he has a ‘vast system of card indexes, dossiers of all and sundry in Westcombe and district.’ Yet this efficiency is not seen in a positive light and the narrative reveals that:

‘Littlejohn didn’t like the atmosphere of the place or the idea of collecting dirty linen at all. It reminded him of the Nazis’ private files or of the scandalous collections of private papers involved in pre-war French government corruption.’

Perhaps the story is trying to suggest that this approach to obtaining information, is unsporting or un-English? In contrast Miss Marple knows all of the gossip in St Mary Mead, yet because her methods are different, and because she is unofficial, her knowledge is not regarded poorly.

Rekha: Hazard compares Boumphrey’s methods of “doshers” to the Gestapo’s. Certain number of references are made to the on-going war, including rationing and Nazis personnel such as Herr Himmler, like you mentioned. Speaking of the “doshers”, Littlejohn wonders if Boumphrey has a dossier made with his own details in it. Also, when LJ asks for Ware’s dossier, he sees a piece of paper fall from it – someone tore a couple of sheets from Ware’s file. Thinking about this now, I think it was done deliberately to put LJ on the wrong path. The torn pages might have indicated 1) Fenwick and Ware’s connection or 2) Boumphrey and Ware’s connection.

Kate: Perhaps the tore couple of sheets is designed to make the reader suspicious of the Chief Constable. That not everything he is doing is above board. One consequence of the Chief Constable’s files is that Inspector Littlejohn does not need to spend a long time uncovering scandalous secrets, as instead they are provided in a clump when he reads from the files. This is a time/page space efficient approach, but I wondered about the effect it had on the story. Personally, I think it contributed to the way the beginning of the story becomes quite repetitive. Having read the files, Inspector Littlejohn then goes to interview everybody. Yet in these interviews no one has anything new to add. No one saw anything. At the end of the interviews two new clues emerge, which are important, but I think they make the interviews feel redundant and like padding.

Rekha: The interviews might be redundant, but I think LJ wanted to make sure whatever was written in the dossiers matched with what he saw, (while interrogating them).  It was kinda obvious when Cromwell goes to Follington and finds out about an unwed mother and her son. She was from Hull and so was Ware. I connected the dots – the son might have been Ware’s. After all, his dying words were “my son”.

Kate: Yes I had been expecting that plot twist from the first page of the book when it says that Ware left Hull for a ‘personal reason.’ When Cromwell goes to Follington the solution rapidly becomes more apparent and I think this is something that happens frequently in Bellairs titles. The solution is revealed or can be worked out by the reader a while before Inspector Littlejohn is able to prove the guilt of the culprit.

Rekha: Halfway through the story, it becomes an inverted mystery of sorts. As readers, we are made aware of the identity of the killer. All is left is for LJ to prove the motive. Also, Littlejohn doesn’t hide the clues he’s found so far from his colleagues. He believes in sharing them so that the investigation can be a team effort. He mentions this in one of his other cases.

Boumphrey hides a vital clue. He does not tell Littlejohn about the needle-mark. (Later, we learn the man had been in love with Fenwick’s mother and was only trying to save Fenwick). Hazard asks Littlejohn to not talk about it with Boumphrey so that they can bring the corruption to a complete stop later. Hazard turned out to be an impressive detective.

Kate: I was surprised by Hazard’s character, as I did not anticipate the bigger role he was going to play, as a sort of sidekick to Inspector Littlejohn. The role of Boumphrey brings in a new element into Bellairs’ work; that of potential police corruption and I think Bellairs uses it in a refreshing way. It is interesting seeing Littlejohn being unsure who he can trust.

Rekha: The ‘autobiography ‘ of the last two chapters was a total waste of reading time. Most of the facts we knew. It was just Fenwick’s accounts of how he came to understand Littlejohn was onto him.

Kate: I absolutely agree! The manuscript at the denouement of the book is innovative for Bellairs, as I have not seen him use it before, but I don’t think it adds anything to the novel as a whole. It merely repeats the information we know, and I think it detracts from the dramatic ending previously achieved by the killer.

Rekha: But, did you notice one thing? Letty is mentioned in every story.  He makes sure to call her every night and say he’s all right, he’s comfortable in his hotel… also, he brings her a ‘trophy’ from the case he’s just solved, in this case the killer’s autobiography. Again, this is mentioned in many of Bellairs’ other books. I think Bellairs was very dedicated to his wife – maybe LJ and Letty’s bond was supposed to be something he referred to from his own life.

Kate: Given the less than happy marriages of some other classic crime writers, it would be nice if that was true. I think my final rating for this book would be 4/5, but I imagine you will be rating it more highly?

Rekha: The “autobiography ” kinda spoiled the fun but I am partial to Bellairs. I won’t let it spoil my rating. You are right, I will be giving it a higher rating. I feel this book deserves a 5.

 

See also: Anjana at Superfluous Reading has also reviewed this title here.

Source: Review Copy (Agora Books)

 

 

10 comments

  1. I had fun discussing this book with you, Kate.🙂
    You are invited to join the afternoon tea with the Littlejohns. Aggie can join in too, as long as she’s not afraid of dogs. If I remember it right, Meg is the name of Littlejohns’ dog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read this one, but wasn’t as enthusiastic as either of you. Have either of you read The Dead Shall Be Raised? It’s the only Bellairs book I truly enjoyed. Nothing has surpassed it in terms of originality or maturity. I have disliked almost everything I’ve read by him (especially …Famished Parson and TCOT Scared Rabbits/I>). The more he wrote the more he pages he devoted to belittling “common” folk in his large cast of characters, discussing at length EXTREMELY minor characters who often aren’t even suspects in the crime.

    Like

    • I think I would disagree with you on the idea that Bellairs belittles lower class characters. Giving them attention in and of itself is not belittling. Unlike in other books of the time these characters are not just nameless hands and faces and when you come to TCOT Famished Parson, both the night porter and the man who collects the golf balls, have significant roles to play in the plot. If anything I would say Bellairs is good at giving concise characterisation, rather than discussing them at extreme lengths.
      There are other aspects of Bellairs’ writing which are certainly open to criticism, but for me, I don’t think this is one of them.
      Oh and no I haven’t read TDSBR – but it is a BL title so I may get around to it at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

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