Death Drops the Pilot (1956) by George Bellairs

Today’s read is Bellairs’ 25th Littlejohn mystery and sees the inspector, now a Chief Inspector, heading to Falbright to investigate the baffling murder of John Grebe. He was one of the captains that piloted the Falbright Jenny, which transported passengers between Falbright and Elmer’s Creek. During the last journey of the day the passengers realise the boat is not taking its usual course and it soon runs into a sandbank. Somehow during the journey Grebe has disappeared. Later he is found in the river, stabbed in the back. From the get-go Grebe is a man with a mysterious past and when threatening postcards are discovered, it seems he was also a man with something to hide.

Overall Thoughts

Littlejohn and his colleague Sergeant Cromwell are an effective duo as usual in this mystery, though it was surprising to learn that the latter enjoyed doing yoga. Having read quite a few titles by Bellairs in the last year or two, I have learnt how to identify what motives and information are extraneous to the solution and which leads need to be followed. As such I found I bought less into the earlier parts of the investigation. Although there is a slippery clue introduced at this point, which was a nice touch.

In keeping with other Littlejohn mysteries the answer to the crime lies in the past and the backstory of the victim invariably leads a trial to the guilty party. However, an issue with this approach to creating a mystery story is that the reader cannot anticipate much of the solution or work much of it out ahead of time. Instead the narrative has to tell the reader about what happened in the past and in the case of this book the telling is quite protracted. On this occasion Bellairs provides some variation within this formula as more than one past event contributed to the recent murder, which I found interesting. Nevertheless, I think it would have been more effectively used if we could have spent more time with the relevant suspects. Spending most of our page time with Inspector Littlejohn distances us from the case somewhat and on this occasion dampens the impact of the intricate human emotions found in the solution. A more suspect focused narrative would have made these emotions more palpable.

Rating: 3.5/5

Source: Review Copy (Agora Books via Netgalley)

8 comments

  1. While I have not read this one, I have generally enjoyed the Bellairs stories I have read over the last two or three years. I suspect for me they work better now than they would have done then, because they do convey a sense of time and place..

    They do make me wonder how extensive local corruption was in the 50s and 60s, especially as Bellairs was a bank manager. I feel that Littlejohn would have got on well with Colin Watson’s Inspector Purbright in the Flaxborough chronicles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You bring an interesting theme. In these slightly later books there is a re-occurrence of officials and people in high standing being corrupt/obstructing justice. Not sure this was theme was quite so prevalent in his earlier books – perhaps your memory might be better at remembering than mine?

      Liked by 1 person

      • While I think it became more central later, certainly by 1949 outwardly respectable people hiding secrets had become a theme.

        (POSSIBLE MILD SPOILER)

        Certainly in the gloriously named “Death of a Demented Spiv” from early on it is clear that something is rotten somewhere at the top.

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  2. Years ago, I (cheaply) bought hardcover editions of Death Drops the Pilot and The Cursing Stone Murder, which came with attractive dust jackets, but the awful memories of the latter haunts me to this day. And has kept from returning to George Bellairs ever since. Even though he has come into some considerable praise since his work has been reprinted en masse.

    I’ve been tempted by Death of a Busybody and Death of a Shadow (fascinating premise!), but then the memories of the dreary, soulless drab that’s The Cursing Stone Murder resurfaces and give him a pass. So is there anything good in his work that someone with a purist streak would like? A good, solid Bellairs would help a lot washing away the lingering bad taste of The Cursing Stone Murder.

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    • Bellairs is a tricky one to give broad recommendations on. I wouldn’t say oh just try the earlier ones, or the ones which feature X. However, the two I enjoyed the most were Dead March for Penelope Blows (1951) and Surfeit of Suspects (1964). After that I would say A Knife for Harry Dodds (1953), Death of a Busybody (1942) and The Body in the Dumb River (1961). Of the ones I have mentioned the titles, in terms of their puzzle aspect, I feel the following books in this order would be most appropriate for you: Dead March for Penelope Blows, Death of a Busybody and A Knife for Harry Dodds.
      Bellairs’ tendency to rely on backstories for crimes can at times weaken his plots, either because the reader can quickly see whom the backstory will be attached to, or the reader cannot anticipate the solution and its backstory and just have to wait to be told.
      I don’t think this issue is attached to the three books I suggested to you.

      Liked by 1 person

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