Death Begets Death

For anyone interested in the continuing picture of Unpopular reading, I can tell you that the past couple of weeks has been filled with more Moray Dalton and George Bellairs, much of which has been hugely enjoyable. I wrote at length about Dalton last time out so will not add much more here other than to tell you that ‘The Case of Alan Copeland’, ‘The Art School Murders’ and ‘The Condamine Case’ are each as good as the last and are very much recommended. All three follow the threads laid by ‘Harriet Hall’ and ‘Belgrave Manor’ in being entertainingly ahead of their times, or at least appearing so in comparison to our peculiarly 21st Century ideas of the 1930s and ’40s. ‘Alan Copeland’ for example includes some quite brazen dalliances of the flesh and some rather heightened passions of jealousy and lust, whist ‘The Condamine Case’ explores film-making, local legends and witchcraft in Somerset, including a delightful throwaway reference to the opening titles to Selznick’s classic take on ‘Rebecca’ and what are surely additional nods towards Judith Anderson’s spooky Mrs Danvers. Best of these three is ‘The Art School Murders’. Written and set early in WW2, this makes the most of the opportunities presented by the blackout and has some marvellously sketched characters all attempting to follow some kind of artistic normalcy within the context of global conflict. What feels strange reading it now is just how little reference is made to The War, and this is to its great credit. You just know that anyone writing something like this in 2020 would feel obliged to cram it full of clever (and tiresomely accurate) references to Real Events. I mean, there is a place for historical crime fiction, but it really is better to go back to the source texts, I find. Like all of Daltons’ books there is not so much to appeal to the puzzle-minded reader here (there is one difficult-to-spot ‘clue’ to the killer) but that is fine with me, for Dalton moves the action along nicely whilst adding decent daubs to build just enough character to make things believable. It’s a damnably tricky balance to strike, and Dalton has shown herself to be marvellously adept. I understand that Dean Street Press will reissue a further five of her books this winter, and that is certainly something to look forward to.

Another recent favourite (if we can be permitted to throw the blanket of ‘recent’ over a few years) in the Unpopular library has been George Bellairs, and I have delved back into his extensive catalogue with the 1957 title ‘Death Sends For A Doctor’ and 1964’s ‘Death Of A Shadow’. The first of these sees Littlejohn and his trusty sergeant Cromwell following up anonymous notes and exploring the deeply entrenched class distinctions in post-war England. Curiously, Bellairs shows us that this residual adherence to pre-war class obsessions is shared largely only by those still envisioning themselves as belonging to the ‘upper’ echelons, and Bellairs plays a neat trick with having the environs of the ‘Upper Square’ physically and psychologically detached from the ‘real’ town and its inhabitants. The square, and its inhabitants, appear to live (and to die) in peculiarly self-obsessed isolation, although Bellairs is also astute enough to throw in some heartless sacrifice of ‘the lower classes’ as a reminder that they are to be seen as entirely disposable objects. Intriguingly too, Death Sends For a Doctor neatly pre-shadows something of the attachment issues of Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’ (published two years later).

‘Death Of A Shadow’ meanwhile sees us transplanted to the shores of Lake Geneva for a deftly executed tale of deception, decency, and blind love and devotion. It’s almost another one of those ‘Littlejohn is on holiday’ stories that Bellairs enjoyed weaving so much, although here it transitions into an official joint investigation with his Swiss counterparts. Inevitably there are shrewdly quizzical looks made at the opaqueness of Swiss banking practices (Bellairs himself was a former bank manager), but as in ‘Death Sends For A Doctor’, although Bellairs nudges up against ideological/political/class issues he does so with a delicate poise in which he acknowledges individual character within the context of cultural baggage. As such it’s interesting how Bellairs’ murderers so often die by their own hands at the end of his books (it’s so common that this should hardly be seen as a spoiler) – Bellairs perhaps pushing forward this idea of the individual with personal responsibility over the notion of a centralised system of judgement. Perhaps too it is just a fine way to quickly bring these kind of narratives to a brisk and just conclusion. Death begets death. End of story.

‘Death Stops The Frolic’ from 1943 meanwhile features Superintendent Nankivell in place of Littlejohn, and I have to say it’s a puzzling book. It reads very much as a writer fishing around to find a voice or a groove, and I personally found it infuriating. The lurches between tense that Bellairs falls into in this, and in some of his contemporaneous early Littlejohn stories are clumsy and read like a writer unable to decide if they are writing a novel or a play with detailed stage instructions and detailed back-stories for characters that are barely relevant to the narrative. Compared to Dalton’s books of the same period, ‘Frolic’ is very much in the shadow of their brilliance. To be fair, it didn’t take too long for Bellairs to iron out these irregularities in his books, and he certainly does much more with much less in his later novels. As a result I’m afraid I cannot recommend ‘Frolic’ except as a curious aberration or as a vaguely interesting early sketchbook with too few treasures.

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