British Library Crime Classics © 1942 George Bellairs
Bellairs was a second- or third-tier writer of mystery novels in what we now call the “golden age.” The English version of this encompassed members of the various police forces (often a Scotland Yard detective working with a local police unit, as in the case of this book) and “gifted amateurs,” often aristocratic (Campion, Wimsey), but not always (Marple). He was also fairly prolific, having written 58 books featuring Superintendent Thomas Littlejohn between 1941 and 1980. Unfortunately, this is a pretty unrelievedly bad book.
The “busybody” of the title is Ethel Tither, a middle-aged spinster in a small village, who wages a one-woman war against immorality, directly confronting those who offend her, urging religious tracts upon them, and insisting that they repent. Her body is discovered in the septic system of the vicar’s residence, where she had been placed within a very short window, and in which she drowned.
Littlejohn quickly discovers that Tither had recently—the day before her murder—written a new will (without consulting her solicitor). What’s not clear is whether the new will—which alters the primary legatee from a cousin to an organization based in London and having as its stated purpose rescuing poor women from a life of degradation—matters. The investigation does not focus on any particular individual, or small group, mostly because Littlejohn doesn’t learn much of anything pertinent until near the end (and then mostly because people just tell him things). The real detective work is done in London and its environs, by his Scotland Yard-based assistant Sgt. Cromwell.
Almost all the characters (including the local vicar, the village constable, and Sgt. Cromwell, but not including Littlejohn) have minor (Cromwell’s identification with the Lord Protector) or major (the vicar’s 1,000+page treatise on bee-keeping) eccentricities. And we have the usual run of “cute” names-the vicar is Mr. Claplady, for example.
This is the third of his Littlejohn books I’ve read, and the characterizations of our protagonist have been fairly inconsistent. In this instance, he spends a lot of time knocking back the odd glass of beer, making notes, walking around the neighborhood…but remarkably little actually detecting. The book shares one feature with the other Bellairs books I’ve read—an annoying use of dialect in the conversations Littlejohn has with the locals; the use of dialect seems mostly designed to point out how unsophisticated, or backward, or stupid the people are. And it extends to using spellings (e.g., “wuz”) in which (as far as I can tell) the pronunciation is the same in the dialect and standard presentation of the words.
Many of the books in the British Library Crime Classics series are actual classics or are worth reading even though they are not classics. This book is neither.