Death in High Provence (1957) by George Bellairs

I was in a book fettle earlier this week where no matter how hard I stared (and then probably glared) at my TBR pile, I just couldn’t get in the mood for any of the books I had yet to read. In the end I pulled this mystery off the shelf and decided to just run with it and not overthink my decision. This book has been on my pile for at least two years, and it has also been just over two years since I last read an Inspector Littlejohn mystery. So, it seemed like a good time to renew my acquaintance with this sleuth.

Green Penguin cover for Death in High Provence. It shows a man's hands in handcuffs.


Death in High Provence has points in common with the notorious Dominici affair. A Cabinet Minister is not satisfied that the death of his brother and his French sister-in-law, in a car-crash, was accidental. He arranges for Littlejohn to visit France unofficially. In the remote upland village of St Marcellin Littlejohn is met by a conspiracy of embarrassed silence. Witnesses disappear, and it is evident that the profligate Marquis de St Marcellin, a friend of the dead couple, exercises a feudal control from the chateau. Nevertheless at the climax of Littlejohn’s inquiries a batch of old skeletons comes tumbling out of the cupboard.’ [Green Penguin Blurb]

The allusion to the ‘Dominici affair’ is a reference to a true crime which occurred in 1952, concerning three British people who were murdered in France; a couple and their daughter. The crime took place in a lay-by near the Dominici family farm. The crime would have been topical in 1957 as Gaston Dominici was convicted for their deaths in that year. Originally, he was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released only three years later due to deteriorating health and in 1965 he died.

Overall Thoughts

The story begins with Chief Inspector Littlejohn arriving home from work and it was a gentle but enjoyable opening in which we get to see his routine and signs that it has been disturbed:

‘He knew right away that something unusual was going on in the flat. Meg, his bobtail sheep-dog, which usually greeted him joyfully in the vestibule, began to bark apologetically from the kitchen at the sound of his steps, which meant there was somebody there who found her de trop.’

However, I wondered how common it is in the series for a Littlejohn mystery to commence with such a domestic focus. If my memory serves me right a lot of the stories tend to start with setting up the environment of the crime i.e., the suspects, the discovery of the victim etc. Death of a Busybody (1942) is one such example. Furthermore, whilst it is not unheard of for Littlejohn to come across a cold case during his investigations, I thought it was perhaps less usual for it to be the leading narrative hook. What is typical, in later Littlejohn mysteries at least, is the Chief Inspector travelling to France to solve crime. That said this is my first experience of Littlejohn abroad.

Bellairs must have been keen on France though or at least on French cuisine as the author bio section of my Green Penguin edition mentions that ‘the Guardian has regularly carried features by him on French life, while he has written on French food and drink for Wine and Food.’ Moreover, in the Guardian review for this novel, it is suggested that Bellairs ‘captures to a nicety the atmosphere of that dour region [St Marcellin]’. So, it sounds like he did a good job on recreating a real-life setting, even if the Guardian doesn’t think it is a region to write home about.

Whilst Chief Inspector Littlejohn does not have the most colourful personality, I think there is enough there to make him an enjoyable character to follow. For instance, it is amusing at the start of the book when he deliberately releases his dog from his kitchen so his visitor, Spencer Lovell (Minister of Commerce) must suffer their presence, since Littlejohn had had to suffer getting cat hair all over his clothes when he visited Spencer, a cat lover. According to the back of my Green Penguin edition Francis Grierson was quite the Littlejohn fan, noting in the Daily Mail that he had ‘known C. I. D. men just like Littlejohn’ and that he had ‘admired them.’ In addition, when it came to recording in this newspaper his final verdict on the book he wrote that it was ‘definitely first-class. Mr Bellairs and Tom Littlejohn have excelled themselves.’

This mystery is one of the few occasions where we get to see more of the Chief Inspector’s wife, Letty. He travels with her, hoping to use her as social camouflage and provide credence to his story that he is on holiday. Nice idea but doesn’t work for very long. Nevertheless, there is one occasion in which Letty manages to find out some useful information for her husband.

Cold cases can take a while to get going, but I think Bellairs circumvents this problem well, having a local baker drunkenly mention that he knows more about the case than he originally let on. Naturally, the baker is nearly killed hours later. He is only saved due to the ministrations of Littlejohn; the locals being obtuse and slow in equal measure, to the degree that Littlejohn wonders if they are trying to not save the man’s life. The icing on the cake is that the baker has disappeared by morning. I think this gives the case a good kickstart and by the end of the first third I felt the mystery had a good plot going, with lots of unexpected complications and new events to enliven the cold case. I felt that the story was more than just lots of interviews with locals who stonewall Littlejohn. Although Bellairs does effectively create a conspiracy of silence.

Nevertheless, for me, the novel did lose some steam as it progressed, particularly once the backstory becomes evident. In terms of whodunit, I don’t feel there is a big enough cast of suspects for this to be hidden for long. Instead, the mystery develops into one where the focus is on Littlejohn proving guilt in the right quarters. Moreover, in order to do this, it becomes a case of him managing to get people to talk and looking back at the narrative I feel there was a lot of witnesses talking at Littlejohn to provide him with chunks of backstory, rather than him necessarily piecing clues together. However, overall, I would say this was an undemanding but enjoyable read.

Rating: 4/5

See also: Rekha who is a big Inspector Littlejohn fan has reviewed this title here. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy has also looked at this book too.


  1. Yes, you are right that the cold case and domestic angles aren’t common to Littlejohn (at least in the pretty big sample I have tried). As for the trips abroad, I remember this as one of the better ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lovely to see an interesting review about a Bellairs book. My late father worked with Harold Blundell ( George Bellairs ) in Martin’s Bank in Manchester and knew him for over 20 years. He told me that Harold didn’t make much money from the books ,but always enough to pay for his beloved French excursions every year . By and large I would recommend the earlier Bellairs books and the earlier Manx settings .

      Liked by 2 people

      • Wow that’s a cool connection and I am not surprised that Bellairs went to France so often. Definitely something you can tell in his writing. Thank you for the recommendations. I have read a few others and the earlier ones probably are the strongest ones in the main.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.