Friday, September 7, 2012

Apprentice of the Humdrum Mystery: Death in the Night Watches (1945), by George Bellairs

As "George Bellairs" Manchester bank officer Harold Blundell (1902-1982) published nearly sixty detective novels over forty years, from 1941 to 1980 (he published four as well under the pseudonym "Hilary Landon").  Blundell's first mystery, Littlejohn on Leave (1941) introduced his series detective, Detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn; it was written during his spare moments at his air raid warden's post in Machester.

Like Elizabeth Ferrars and Christianna Brand, then, Blundell is not quite officially Golden Age--but he's close enough!  His early novels from the 1940s were published in the United States by Macmillan (they also published, among British mystery writers, E. R. Punshon and Christopher Bush) and he was well received there, getting some favorable notices from, for example, crime fiction reviewer Anthony Boucher.

Harold Blundell (1902-1982)
aka George Bellairs
After about a decade, however, Blundell's novels fell off in popularity in the States and, though he was a quite prolific writer of considerable longevity, he has faded from public memory in the three decades since his death.  However, many of his early books are extremely rare and highly sought by collectors.

To me Blundell is significant for carrying on something of an attentuated "Humdrum" tradition after the deaths of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street.  His books offered straightforward police investigations of dastardly crimes and appealed to those desiring an honest-to-goodness, classical-style British detective novel in a time when such works were losing cachet. 

The George Bellairs detective novel Death in the Night Watches is one of his most classical in milieu, involving murder in a wealthy wartime manufacturing family.  There's a tyrannical patriarch who married a much younger woman, a will deemed highly unsatisfactory by many of his heirs, a timetable, and even a butler!

If it weren't for some references to the war and to business conflicts with energized unions, one might think this novel twenty years older than it is.

The novel starts well, with Harold Worth, manager of the family foundry, Worth's, getting killed off in a dramatic fashion. Then the old nanny, who evidently knows too much, is dispatched through poison in her sugar bowl.  The aforementioned tyrannical family patriarch died before the novel begins, leaving his money in trust to his much younger widow.  She would seem to be the natural target for murder, not Harold, but it is Harold who is dead.

So who might have killed Harold?  Well, his young stepmother, perhaps, or Harold's feckless, arty brother, or Harold's sister, or maybe that no-good, fortune-hunting French count the sister married.  Then it seems that Harold was a bit of a lad with the ladies, so there are various fathers of attractive female employees at Worth's to suspect (including that hot-blooded Welshman Llewellyn Evans--Evans! Oops, I mean heavens! we know he has to be Welsh from that name, plus he helpfully peppers his conversation with "Look you's" just to make sure we don't miss it).

There are some good humorous character sketches in this novel, but unfortunately as a detective novel, Night Watches proves rather a bust in my estimation.  Investigation proceeds largely with Littlejohn going about questioning people continually.  There is not much material or scientific investigation, as there would be in a John Street novel, and there are no brilliant deductions.  Finally, after Littlejohn is told enough for him to alight on the killer, he breaks an alibi that has none of the ingenuity of those carefully constructed contrivances concocted by the Golden Age Alibi King, Freeman Wills Crofts.

So in essence Death in the Night Watches has the surface appeal of the classical British detective novel, without the substance.  The humorous character sketches aren't strong enough to salvage an unmemorable plot, in my view.  I've read better Bellairs, and will keep him on my list, but Night Watches is no rival to the best detective novels by the "Humdrum" masters.

Harold Blundell probably read Freeman Crofts and John Street (in Night Watches there's even a character named Waghorn, a name I've never seen outside of John Street's John Rhode novels, where copper Jimmy Waghorn is a major series character), but in Death in the Night Watches, Blundell's not an old master of the humdrum mystery but, rather, a young apprentice; and his work leaves room for improvement.


  1. Bellairs reminds me of a sort of poor man's Henry Fielding of the mystery novel. He devotes a lot of space to describing the inner lives of the most minor characters and satrizing all aspects of village life. The pub scenes are some of the most lively in detective fiction. In TCOT THE SCARED RABBITS the depiction of the people at the village fete is the only reason to read that book. The mystery plot is one of his most disappointing of his books with all sorts of Nazi nonsense that was already cliche when the book was published. I have yet to be wowed by any of the mystery plots in the Bellairs books I've read. The killer is usually easy to spot. There was one that had two murderers but it was handled so slipshod that it wasn't the gasp inducing surprise it should've been.

    Bellairs has a love for the Gothic, too. The titles alone reveal that: OUTRAGE ON GALLOW'S HILL, CRIME AT LEPER'S HOLLOW, THE CASE OF THE HEADLESS JESUIT. The discovery of the corpse in THE CASE OF THE FAMISHED PARSON I think is like something out of a horror novel.

    1. What a curious picture! It reminds me of Alec Guinness when he played Father Brown.

  2. I have two of George Bellair's novels, The Cursing Stone Murders and Death Drops the Pilot, but comments like the one John posted always kept me from reading them. There's always seems something better, or more interesting, to read one of his mysteries.

    Is there anything recommendable about the titles I own?

    1. I have both of them too, but have not read either. Sorry. Of the few I have read the only one I would recommend is THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED. It had the most interesting of plots and a truly puzzling murder.

  3. I have only "Death in High Provence" by Bellairs. The book, however, I did not like. Too flat and with few outbursts. A novel normal, but .. with little narrative tension. At least it seemed so to me.


  4. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the comments, I Hope to have the full review up tonight.


    I had the reaction to that photo, yes!

  5. John,

    I agree with your assessment, particularly in regard to the title reviewed here (finally completed!). On the surface, there's plenty to appeal, but the plot's a disappointment and the writing's not good enough to compensate for that. The Dead Shall be raised (Murder Will Speak) was better and Death of a Busybody, as I recollect.