This volume piqued my curiosity and I thought I’d give it a try. I’d read some George Bellairs novels years ago and, as I dimly recalled, not thought much of them. But with the current resurgence in Golden Age of Detection e-books, Bellairs’s early works have become more available and I decided to see if I’d missed anything interesting.
Bellairs wrote 50-some novels, most featuring Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard, between 1941 and 1980; this is the fifth Littlejohn mystery.
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this novel about?
It’s 1939 and England has just entered World War II. We are first introduced in a brief prequel to Mr. Solomon Burt, né Bernstein, as he approaches a kind of housing development for which he has been responsible. He bought up a Georgian manor house from its impoverished heir and turned it into eight luxurious flats that rented from £350 to £500 a year. Burt had completely renovated the building, added a swimming pool and tennis courts and all the modern conveniences, relying on the house’s proximity to frequent trains to London to attract well-to-do tenants. And indeed, within a month, all eight are rented, one by Mr. Burt himself.
However, all is not well in the Harwood manor. During the renovations, the house was plagued with a series of accidents; the water pipes burst and an ornamental ceiling falls in. The ancient denizens of the local pub insist that the place is haunted by the ghosts of long-ago hellions of the Harwood family. But after all the flats are occupied, a series of bizarre occurrences galvanizes the household. “Three days after the outbreak of war” — so, the early days of September, 1939 — the kitchen of the Carberry-Peacocke family is seemingly destroyed by a poltergeist (“all the crockery and china scattered, broken on the floor, the chairs and tables overturned, the refrigerator inverted in the middle of the room and the electric stove in the sink”). Similarly, other tenants are plagued with the constant rattle of dice in the room where Regency-era Harwood fops had “gambled away the family funds,” a West End actress is sufficiently bothered by constant streams of hot and cold air that she breaks her lease, and another tenant is disturbed by the constant noise of what sounds like a pump handle.
Although the Carberry-Peacockes are amateur psychic researchers and thus delighted, no one else is happy. Things come to a head when, apparently, the poltergeist spends half the night harassing the tenants and then three masked and costumed villains remove Mr. Burt from his bed at 3 a.m., strip him naked, and throw him in the icy swimming pool. They vanish, and Burt makes his way back towards his own quarters — but does not survive the night, since he’s found at the bottom of some stairs with a broken neck.
Inspector Littlejohn is called upon to investigate. He (and his comedy-relief associate DS Cromwell) soon learns that many of the inhabitants of the luxury flats are not what they seem and one or two appear to be Nazi spies or collaborators. The activities of the resident poltergeist are resolved rather quickly, but the identification and nullification of enemy agents occupies the rest of the book. Burt is merely the first victim in a surprisingly high number of deaths; the spies who haven’t killed themselves are taken in charge and most are destined to be hanged by the state for espionage. In a coda, Littlejohn is given three days off to nurse a knock on the head, because “Lord knows when you’ll get another holiday. Things are warming-up and we’ll want all our forces ….” (Remember the publication date of 1945; this was an odd sort of Had I But Known fillip.)
Why is this novel worth your time?
By and large, it’s not worth your time at all, if you want to consider it as a murder mystery and keep it to that. I have occasionally described the lesser talents who populated the lower regions of the Golden Age of Detection as “first-rate second-rate writers”; this author is a second-rate second-rate writer, alas, and this effort is just dull.
Bellairs starts out with some hints of promise in setting up the central story hook — poltergeists are attacking the inhabitants of a converted Georgian mansion. We, as experienced mystery readers, are all aware that this is what I call the Scooby-Doo premise; the poltergeists are of course diverting attention from some sort of criminal enterprise and it’s up to Inspector Littlejohn and the Scooby gang — sorry, Scotland Yard — to pierce the supernatural veil and expose the criminal activities. So that’s rather what I was expecting as I went through the first third of this. Unfortunately and kind of oddly, it turns out that very nearly everyone in this mansion is Not What They Seem, very close to the level of Scooby-Doo plot lines. I trust I won’t be surprising you by the idea that there are no such things as poltergeists and, yes indeed, it was Nazi spies all the time. The part that I found annoying was that there were so many people involved in this huge criminal enterprise that it literally didn’t matter who did carry out the poltergeistly activities or murder Mr. Burt, it could have been anyone with a spare moment, and thus any attempt by the reader to figure out what’s going on is useless. This is not a mystery you solve, it’s one to which you are told the answer.
George Bellairs (detail from a dust jacket)
There are some strange issues of construction that bothered me too. What it ultimately boiled down to is that it felt to me like this novel had been written in misaligned pieces. The author constructed the first third of the novel quite ably, laying the groundwork for what promised to be a competent mystery. Poltergeists, suspects, a few well-laid clues like casually mentioning where the former owner had gone to live. Your basic Scooby plot, and I was starting to wonder which of the tenants might have Something In Their Past … Then just as Inspector Littlejohn takes over the case, it becomes a kind of Inspector-French-with-water kind of Humdrum where the author hasn’t really thought through what it is that detectives DO, and so there are no extraneous lines. That’s a very brief segment, thank goodness, and it immediately turns into what occupies the action for the remainder of the book; the hunt for Nazis. Really, it’s not a mystery at all; once the threadbare curtain of the poltergeist is laid bare about the middle of the book, it’s rather like a straightforward adventure story in which the rather bland Littlejohn represents the avenging fury of Britain against the Nazis. He gets them all, they die, boom, the end.
I don’t mind that kind of story once in a while, especially when you’re looking for the social context in GAD, as I so frequently am. It was annoying, though, to have it suggested that I was getting a small-h humdrum mystery and instead end up with an episode of Spy Smasher. Calamity at Harwood as the title makes it sounds like, you know, country-house aristo is killed before changing his will. Nuh-uh. I have to tell you, at one point in this book an elderly handicapped woman is killed violently and in an almost careless way by one of the criminals, who dies in the process. By the end of this book, more than ten people have died, whether violently, accidentally, or suicidally. This is not Professor Plum in the Billiard Room with the Revolver, but it’s presented that way at first, and it’s jarring to make the transition to the spy plot. But Nazi Spy Ring at Harwood would have given it away a little too soon…
It’s almost like Bellairs decided that he needed to produce something to rouse the troops and that a simplistic story where spies are caught and killed would be visceral and satisfying to the reader. At one point he goes out of his way to portray a British collaborator as a weak-willed idiot who wilts under the slightest pressure and gabbles out the whole plot. Not very realistic, but apparently the contemporary reader was thinking approvingly of his/her wholehearted patriotism in contrast to this craven sell-out. In the second half of the story, all the subtlety is gone; it’s just a series of trails where Littlejohn tracks down a specific person and they’re apprehended, and/or die. Usually in a way that shows their complete lack of character and moral fibre.
There is a specific reason, though, why ultimately this book landed in the second-rate second-rate category. I’m not sure whether it’s accidental or deliberate, but we are led in the early parts of the book to understand that certain characters experience genuine surprise and shock at some events. The author says that they do. Well, not to get into it too deeply, but later on it’s clear that those characters must have known what was going to happen and would not have been surprised in the slightest. That’s just cheating. Sure, you can be an unreliable narrator; I like books like that, including a famous one by Agatha Christie. But you cannot be both a reliable and unreliable one in the same book. It’s either careless or insulting — thinking that I wasn’t capable of remembering what you’d said about the character’s reactions by the time I reached the end.
There were some distinctly interesting points in the social context of the book, though, and I found them sufficiently worthwhile to make up for a lot of the nonsense that was going on in the main plot. Not a very good recommendation, and I expect you won’t find there’s enough interest in the background to make up for the pedestrian foreground.
What do we learn about the social context?
There’s some fascinating stuff about the war in England, I thought. I wondered for a moment how it could be that this desirable mansion remained uncontaminated with evacuees, especially since the village is said to be full of them and there’s at least one empty apartment in the mansion, but that is explained by Mrs. Stone, the mansion’s housekeeper, mentioning that their particular evacuees had been quarantined with measles before arriving. There’s quite a bit about the local village being filled with evacuees, but it doesn’t seem to bring them into things as witnesses. Mrs. Stone blames the unavailability of ham and eggs upon their ravenous descent on the village’s food stocks, as she sullenly serves up sausage and brussels-sprouts for breakfast.
All the evacuees, indeed, are represented in the person of one Charlie Agg, a perky Cockney with a horrible line in racist backchat. (The victim is referred to “the Jew-boy … who’s croaked in his swimmin’-pool.”) This is strange because Agg’s few paragraphs of the narrative involve him defending his fellow Londoner, the late Mr. Burt, as having been victimized by these ‘orrid countryfolk. Inspector Littlejohn seemingly doesn’t hear the racism and I think, since Agg’s moment on stage goes precisely nowhere, that he’s meant as sort of background colour. Perhaps that was acceptable in 1945.
There’s a little bit about the blackout sprinkled through the book and, in the coda, Littlejohn takes his wife to the cinema, where they see an M. of I. film showing how idle talk assists foreign agents. I’m not intimately involved with the details of what happened when in WW2, but it made me a little suspicious that Bellairs might have been applying the regulations and attitudes of 1945 to the book which he so deliberately set in 1939. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me. I get the feeling that excitement was more important to Bellairs than historical accuracy.
Near the end of the story, there’s a weird little moment where Littlejohn offers his friend and colleague of the French police, M. Luc, the hospitality of his home in case the war in France results in a German victory. It’s all expressed in very odd language, almost encoded, with many crucial things being unspoken. I can’t remember any of Bellairs’s other novels so I can’t say whether this is some sort of foreshadowing of stories past or to come, but it did seem like it. It’s hard to remember at this distance that although it might have seemed secure in a book published in 1945 that the Allies were going to be victorious, it wasn’t yet a slam-dunk.
It was the domestic details that interested me the most. There are eight apartments, occupied in total by perhaps a dozen people. Yet the apartments are said to be built without kitchens (although food can be prepared, kettles boiled, etc.) and Mrs. Stone “came daily to cook for such as desired it”. Wow. In other words, private chef to eight households, with no other help around the place except that of her fairly useless husband. I suspect more staff would have laid the burden of their presence upon the actions of the plot, particularly the poltergeist bits, so they were inconvenient and left out. The character seems too generally incompetent to be in charge of more than one or two individuals. Yet Littlejohn seems to think he can get her to “rustle something up” with half-an-hour’s notice.
The activities of the poltergeist involve destruction of a lot of foodstuffs, in the throwing around of flour and eggs and appliances; no one bemoans this specifically, so it seems as though this takes place before food rationing. I’m not sure how big a refrigerator would have been in 1945; apparently they can be “upended and flung across the room” and not bring into question how many people were involved in that exercise.
And we learn quite a bit about … well, I’ll call it the “fifth column” even though no one the book uses that phrase. Apparently Germany was aware long before it ever got involved in war that it was going to need deep-cover agents in England (and everywhere else, it seems). During the war, elaborate cover stories were prepared to get German agents into England in a convincing way, and this book is based on some of those elaborate stories. Very much, indeed, like Agatha Christie’s N or M? from 1941. Honestly I used to approach this with a grain of salt, but judging by the imagination that went into Christie’s and Bellairs’s take on it, and those of other contemporaneous authors I’ve read, okay, I’ll buy it. People were substituted for other fairly well-known people and plans were laid far, far in advance. Makes it difficult for the reader to know who could potentially be who, but at least the story moves along at a brisk clip.
To sum up: not enough murder mystery, and not really worth your time unless you are prepared to put up with a lot of espionage bumph in order to glean a few interesting sidelights on the social conditions in wartime Britain.
A note on editions
Like most early George Bellairs novels, this used to be ferociously expensive and hard to find. It was never in paperback to my knowledge. As of today’s date there are precisely three copies available of the US first (and only) edition for sale on AbeBooks, all for more than US$100 and one is an ex-library copy. Bellairs’s original British publisher of the true first edition was Gifford, which was not of the first rank and whose editions are all hard to find; I’ve never seen this or any other Bellairs title from his early years. I rather like the illustration of the ghost and the dancing refrigerators on the Gifford cover. Mysterious Press in the US brought this edition out as an e-book in 2014 and made it available to people other than bibliophiles with deep pockets, for which we should all be grateful. I have no idea what the young gentleman on the cover is smirking at; it doesn’t evoke anything from the book to my mind.