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‘The Dead Shall Be Raised’ by George Bellairs

The Dead Shall Be Raised is one of the many novels reissued, thanks to the British Library Crime Classics series. This is a lovely choice for Christmas reading, as it’s full of festive atmosphere. Published in 1942, this was George Bellairs’s fourth novel and the third published that year. It features his regular detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard.

The story begins on Christmas Eve 1940, as Littlejohn stepped from the well-lighted London to Manchester train into the Stygian darkness of the blacked-out platform of Stockport. The feeling of Britain during wartime is evident throughout the narrative, beginning with a vivid account of journeying in a dim, shadowy railway carriage on an unknown branch line at night.

Inspector Littlejohn is on his way to be reunited with his wife. She is staying with an old friend in the north, after the windows of their London flat were blown out by bombing. His destination is Hatterworth, a town in the Pennines, surrounded by moorland. After missing the bus from the nearest station, Littlejohn is given a lift by a genial Superintendent Haworth, head of the local police. Hatterworth is full of Christmas spirit.

The night was still crisp and frosty, with stars bright like jewels. In spite of the black-out, there were plenty of people astir in the darkness. Sounds of merry voices, shouts of goodwill and here and there groups of boys carol-singing at the doors of dwellings and holding noisy discussions concerning the alms doled out by their patrons in between their wassailing.

There’s a delightful scene on Christmas night where a musical Superintendent Haworth is singing in a performance of The Messiah at the Methodist chapel, a big event for the town. Bellairs gives such an affectionate portrayal of a small community. Totally believable and full of charm, it’s like peering into the past. However effectively authors recreate a period setting, for me, nothing beats the writing of the time. It speaks to us across the decades. No worries about authenticity and research, the author was there.

And the past is soon making itself remembered in Hatterworth. The Home Guard are busy on manoeuvres on Milestone Moor.

The place was dotted with khaki-clad figures, running, leaping, stumbling, attacking, earnest in their mock-battling.

While some of the men are laying a trench, they find a skeleton. A generation ago, two local men were murdered nearby. The killer was generally thought to be known but never found. The old investigation is re-opened and with a Scotland Yard man on the scene, Littlejohn happily agrees to assist.

It’s a pleasure to follow the team’s intelligent, realistic gathering of evidence. Inspector Littlejohn is one of those determined, thoroughly decent policemen frequently encountered in pre-war crime fiction and the Hatterworth force are very well-drawn. Local knowledge proves invaluable as they question the witnesses still living.

Bellairs writes some lovely sketches of country folk. His characters ‘leap off the page’ and have a feeling of real figures recalled. They hark back to a bygone age of country writing with farm labourers, gamekeepers, poachers and tramps. I loved the descriptions from the wild moorland with its lonely inns to the town’s foundrys and iron-workers. His sense of place is superbly done.

If there’s any weakness in the plot, modern readers would probably point to a shortage of suspects – but this is such an engrossing read, that doesn’t matter. The story gradually becomes a how-do-we-nail-the-murderer? And how they do is very satisfying.

The Dead Shall Be Raised is fascinating for its wartime atmosphere. The detectives’ wives are busy knitting scarves and balaclavas for the troops. Even a local tramp has his ration-books and identity-card. Apparantly the author was working as an air-raid warden at the time of writing. A timeless rural community has been forced to adapt, stoically and cheerfully. It’s poignant for the reader to know that way of life will never quite resume.

The British Library Crime Classics edition is extremely good value as The Dead Shall Be Raised comes with another Bellairs title The Murder Of A Quack, set in Norfolk. Though short novels by today’s standards, they’re not novellas but full-length mysteries. There’s also the bonus of an informative introduction by Martin Edwards.

I’m a great fan of George Bellairs – the pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902-82) – a bank manager and journalist who wrote over fifty detective novels. It’s pleasing to see his work readily available again and enjoyed by new readers. His writing has a real charm about it and this one is a perfect read for Christmas.

 

 

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Calamity In Kent by John Rowland

Another seaside read for late summer this week, Calamity in Kent, one of the British Library Crime Classics. This has the bonus of an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards and another breezy railway poster cover. The novel was published in 1950 and this is the first reprint. It is set in the fictional resort of Broadgate, a very lightly disguised Broadstairs. We can be sure of this as Rowland describes the topography in detail and mentions the real area of North Foreland, just beyond the town.

Broadstairs is a charming place, full of historic interest, with two claims to literary fame. Dickens loved the town, visiting many times and writing much of David Copperfield there. John Buchan and his family were staying at Broadstairs in the summer of 1914. His wife’s cousin was renting a cliff-top property which had a flight of steps leading to a private beach. They and the town are the inspiration for the end of The Thirty-nine Steps.

Calamity In Kent is narrated by Jimmy London, a journalist recuperating at Broadgate after an operation. His illness is unspecified but we know he’s been staying there in a boarding-house for some weeks. Taking a turn on the prom before breakfast, he sees a man who’s had a bad shock. He’s the operator of the cliff railway who has just discovered a body in the locked cliff railway carriage.

Jimmy’s newshound instincts make him excited to be first on the spot. There follows an amusing interlude where he views the body and manages to despatch the lift attendant to fetch the police. Left alone, he not only frisks the corpse, finding out his identity but finds a notebook – uncomfortably near splatters of blood – and cheerfully pockets it.

Jimmy immediately phones a Fleet Street editor and gets himself appointed special correspondent for the murder story. He can scent his way back to replenishing his funds and landing a staff job.

In my time I had been in on a few scoops. This, however, was the first time that I had ever had the inside story of a murder handed to me on a plate. And I knew that a recent increase in the newsprint ration meant that the papers would give a bit more space to the case, if it was truly sensational, than they had been able to do in years.

Then Jimmy meets up with an old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, who happens to be staying with the Chief Constable. Not having much faith in the unimaginative local man, Inspector Beech, Shelley suggests that he and Jimmy London pool their knowledge.

I think it would be as well if we agreed to share the work of investigation. You see, there are people who might talk to a journalist, who, on the other hand, would not so readily talk to a policeman. Queer, no accounting for personal taste.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of reviews with readers complaining about this unrealistic device but I’m happy to suspend belief if I’m enjoying myself. (We never miss Midsomer Murders or Father Brown.) It is rather convenient how Jimmy finds one lead after another and everyone readily tells him useful information – instead of where to get off. Even so, I did enjoy Calamity in Kent very much.

Jimmy London is an engaging protagonist. Optimistic, resourceful, unscrupulous, he’s very believable and you can’t help taking to him. Inspector Shelley is likable too and is John Rowland’s usual detective. The narrative gains added interest in being from Jimmy’s point of view. The plot is great fun and builds to an exciting denouement. This has a sense of real danger and comes close to the feel of a fifties thriller or black and white film.

Calamity in Kent has an interesting transitional feel in the world of 20th century crime fiction. The setting is familiar to that of a Golden Age detective novel but contains many post-war references. A character has a limp from a war wound. We hear about newsprint rationing, the difficulty of obtaining motor spares, identity cards, nationalisation of the coal mines and the black market. Britain’s seaside resorts have resumed their heyday – although they’ve only a decade or so before holiday-makers will fly away to the sun. But things aren’t quite the same. The barbed wire’s been taken off the beach, the Home Guard disbanded and the blown-up part of the pier repaired. There’s another list of names  on the war memorial. Even in a real life Walmington-on-sea, times are changing.

Please click on the link to see editions:

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