Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs

A murky tale of murder with an eccentric cast of suspects 

Death of a Busybody is the third Inspector Littlejohn mystery
Death of a Busybody is the third
Inspector Littlejohn mystery
The writer of Death of a Busybody, George Bellairs, was bank manager Harold Blundell  by day.

Blundell must have been a keen student of human nature while working at his bank in Manchester because many of the characters he depicts in this story display unusual quirks and idiosyncrasies.

The busybody referred to in the title of the book is Miss Ethel Tither, who has made herself deeply unpopular in the quaint English village of Hilary Magna, by going out of her way to snoop on people and interfere with their lives.

When Miss Tither is found floating in the vicar’s cesspool, having been bludgeoned by an attacker before being left to drown in the drainage water, the local police quickly feel they are out of their depth and call in Scotland Yard.

Inspector Thomas Littlejohn, the author’s series detective, arrives by train and finds there is no shortage of suspects in the case. He must piece together the clues quickly in order to find out who was responsible for the murder of the busybody and restore order and calm in the village.

This is the third Littlejohn novel by George Bellairs, who was born Harold Blundell in 1902 near Rochdale in Lancashire. He wrote more than 50 novels, most of them featuring Littlejohn, starting with Littlejohn on Leave, published in 1941 and finishing with An Old Man Dies, published just before his own death in 1982.

Death of a Busybody was published in 1942. While he was writing it, Bellairs was working in a bank during the day and acting as an air raid warden at night, having been exempted from military service because he was blind in one eye. He had discovered that writing a detective novel helped to pass the time during the blackout.

Bellairs was bank manager Harold Blundell in his day job
Bellairs was bank manager
Harold Blundell in his day job
Bellairs wrote amusing stories that gave his readers welcome light relief during the war years and in the difficult decades that followed. For example, in Death of a Busybody, one of the detectives assisting Littlejohn goes to interview a retired accountant whose hobby is bird watching and who writes about his ornithological studies. The two becomes friends and the detective also becomes a bird enthusiast. At the end of the novel, it is revealed that they have subsequently published a joint treatise about birds and have presented a copy to Inspector Littlejohn. This is an example of the author’s mischievous sense of humour revealing itself in what is essentially a classic mystery novel.

Another delightful aspect of the novel is the way Bellairs depicts rural life at the beginning of the 1940s. He reveals some of the eccentricities of the local population with great humour, in a similar way to Gladys Mitchell in her Mrs Bradley mystery, The Devil at Saxon Wall, which was published in 1935.

Although his books were also published in the US and translated into other languages, Bellairs regarded crime writing as a hobby and he continued to write for pleasure rather than profit. After his death, his books became largely forgotten by the wider public, which was a great pity

First editions in dust jackets of early books by Bellairs are now quite rare and therefore collectable and fetch high prices. But now some of his books are available to new readers thanks to the British Library Crime Classics series, enabling 21st century detective story fans to enjoy his mysteries and find pleasure once again in his gentle humour.

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