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Thursday 13 July 2017

George Bellairs

The  Golden Age
George Bellairs (1902-1982)
by Carol Westron


If we are being rigid about dates, George Bellairs just misses being classified as a Golden Age author. His first mystery, Littlejohn on Leave, was written in 1941, to help alleviate the tedium of nights spent at his
air-raid warden’s post. However Bellairs’ books are whodunnits with the ambience and charm of the classic Golden Age police procedural and, in my opinion, they should be considered as part of that body of work.

George Bellairs was the pseudonym of Harold Blundell. He was born in Lancashire, the son and grandson of artisan joiners, but achieved a degree in Economics from a London university before becoming a bank manager in Manchester. In 1930, he married Gladys Mabel Roberts, who had been born in the Isle of Man. Bellairs took a prominent philanthropic role in public life in Manchester and served as a member of the United Manchester Hospitals Board and Chairman of the Private Patients Home. In 1959 he was granted an honorary masters degree by the University of Manchester, an honour which recognised both his charitable work and his
literary achievements.

Bellairs was a remarkably prolific writer and, in the four decades of his writing career, wrote over fifty novels under the pseudonym of George Bellairs and another four detective stories under the name of Hilary Langdon. In 1951 he wrote a radio comedy, The Legacy, which was broadcast in December 1951. He contributed a regular column to the Manchester Guardian and worked as a freelance writer for other newspapers both local and national. Bellairs was a Francophile, who travelled to France frequently and wrote articles for English newspapers offering news and viewpoints from France. 

Unlike the usual perception of a bank manager, Bellairs was a lively and amusing speaker. He was a member of the Detection Club and Anthony Berkeley, who had abandoned writing in favour of reviewing, was generous in his praise of Bellairs’ books. Indeed, Berkeley and Bellairs became friends, a remarkable example of opposites attracting, for Berkeley had a restless, dissatisfied personality, while Bellairs was hard-working, generous and appears to have been happy and content with his life. 

When Bellairs at last retired from banking, he and Gladys moved to Colby on the Isle of Man, where they had many friends and family. Bellairs’ surviving notebooks reveal his fascination with the history, geography and
folklore of the Isle of Man, but this is even more obvious in the loving descriptions of the island and its inhabitants in the Littlejohn books set there.

Bellairs died on the Isle of Man in April 1982, just before his eightieth birthday.

Bellairs’ most famous creation is Detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn who, through the course of over fifty books, becomes a Superintendent. Littlejohn is a large, strong man. He is married to Letty, an attractive and intelligent woman, who is consistently supportive of her husband and his career. Perhaps one of the most endearing aspects of Littlejohn’s character is that when he is away from home, he makes a habit of phoning Letty to check that she is all right and because talking to her provides comfort and stability in his life. The Littlejohns have a much loved dog, Meg. They have no children but, in one book it is mentioned that they had a daughter who died while still a child. As one objectionable witness says, when boasting that he knows about Littlejohn’s background: ‘“You’re fifty, live in Hampstead, near the Heath, married, no children, born near the Lakes, in Lancashire, educated local grammar school and Manchester Police Force...”’ (Death in Dark Glasses, 1952).

For a Scotland Yard detective Littlejohn investigates remarkably few cases in London. He is frequently sent to investigate country crimes, often in the north of England, the area in which Bellairs was born and spent his working life and clearly knew well. Littlejohn is usually accompanied by his colleague Sergeant Cromwell, who later becomes an inspector. Cromwell is an amusing, quirky character, with an interest in Health Foods and dietary supplements, who has, on occasion, disturbed the other residents of the hotel in which they are staying with the crashes of his weight training. Even when travelling on an over-night sleeper train he does not miss out on his morning exercises: ‘Littlejohn... tapped on the communicating door to the next compartment and thrust in his head. Cromwell was on the floor, his body raised on hands and tiptoes, performing with difficulty in the narrow space, his morning exercises. (Death Drops the Pilot, 1955).

Nor will Cromwell miss out on his patent health food: ‘He ignored the teapot on the tray and started to make himself a drink of Strengtho from a tin he carried in his luggage, measuring two teaspoonfuls carefully, mixing it into a paste, thinning it with water from the jug. Then he drank it with apparent relish and satisfaction.’ (Death Drops the Pilot, 1955) At the start of the series he is a bachelor but, in due course, he marries and becomes an attentive husband and doting father who feels a natural outrage when he suspects a spying postman has steamed open a family letter:
‘“Looks as if it might be from your best girl.”
Cromwell stared straight into the cunning eyes regarding him from under their ambush of eyebrows, and put the letter in his pocket. It was from his best girl; his eldest daughter, aged six, who always kept up a regular and
loving correspondence with him when he was away from home. Cromwell looked at Fothergill’s dirty tobacco-stained fingers with their cruel nails, and felt like socking the postman on the jaw for daring to handle

As well as a large number of novels set in England and several set in France, Bellairs used the Isle of Man as the setting for many novels and these resonate with the author’s love for the island, its culture and legends, and for its people. These books echo with phrases taken from the Manx language: ‘Thie Aash – House of Peace; Kynnas-tha-shu - How are you?; Brauw – Fine; cooish – gossip; Traa-dy-Liooar – Time enough.’ The last two phrases are especially prevalent as Littlejohn struggles to overcome the different attitude to time that the islanders express and which threatens to overwhelm him when he is on the island.

Littlejohn is, on the whole, a civilised and decent policeman. He tends to make snap judgements based on appearance and intuition and, although often right, he is honest enough to admit his error when he reads somebody wrong. He is usually kind and considerate to the vulnerable, no matter what their class, however, he is far from perfect and, on more than one occasion, bends the rules and manhandles and even assaults suspects.

Bellairs has an unusual, possibly rather old-fashioned writing style. As new characters are introduced he describes them in detail, giving a paragraph to even minor characters and making it clear whether they are likeable, attractive people or not. He also has a habit of dropping in little statements concerning what will happen to the characters in the future, which allows the reader to eliminate those characters as suspects. There is an element of mischievous humour in Bellairs’ work, which lifts the whole tone of the novels and he often gently mocks self-satisfied, pompous officials. Although Littlejohn sometimes encounters jealousy and obstruction from the local police officers when Scotland Yard is called in to investigate, more often than not they are intelligent, co-operative and welcome his help. Also, many of the simple, village constables that Littlejohn meets are portrayed as honest, hard-working and intelligent within their own sphere, although they know little of the wider world. Bellairs has a straightforward, simple style, with fairly laid clues and usually fits in more than one murder per novel.

Unlike many of the early Golden Age writers, Bellairs’ victims are not always unlikeable, indeed, he deals with emotive issues more honestly than many of his contemporaries, as in Half-Mast For The Deemster (1953) when one of the victims is an innocent child who happened to witness a crime.
‘The good old man who looked after the place was in tears.
“I might have prevented it if only I’d known,” he said.
They had not yet removed the body, and every officer who saw it gnashed his teeth, either actually or metaphorically. A harmless child, neat in his scout’s uniform, sprawled in the musty interior of the vehicle in an atmosphere smelling of straw, old leather and dust. By the light of the police lamps the whole gruesome scene was plain. Somebody had simply strangled the boy and now he lay there, staring eyes, clenched hands, terror all over him.’
Bellairs writing can be very powerful but in another way he conforms to the habit of many Golden Age writers and a large number of his villains die by suicide, accident or at the hands of their co-conspirators and do not have to face the hangman’s noose.

One of the things that distinguishes Bellairs’ writing is the beautiful descriptive passages of the places Littlejohn is working in. These are especially vivid in his descriptions of his much-loved Isle of Man. ‘The town centre was large and dominated, as was everything else, by Rushen
Castle, with its one-handed Elizabethan clock, grassy, filled in moat, sundial and palm trees. The surrounding town houses of past gentility filled two sides of the square, in different colours and styles, still elegant in their shabby way, with a monstrous modern shop-front defacing the facade of one of them, which, until the outrage, must have been a little gem of its kind. The whole setting, the streets, the square , the river, the port and the people standing around reminded you of the first act of a Verdi opera.’
(Half-Mast For The Deemster, 1953.)

On the same day, Littlejohn is travelling back to the home of his friend the Reverend Kinrade and Bellairs captures the change of mood and place in a few exquisite lines: ‘It was mild for the time of year, the windows were open, and the sun was beginning to set over the mountains in the direction of Peel. The birdsong, the whisper of the trees, the smell of wood-smoke on the air, a dog barking far away... so unreal and remote from the world and the dead man whose killer Littlejohn must now find.’ (Half-Mast For The Deemster, 1953.)

Another thing that makes Bellairs’ books stand out is that many of them contain a strong hint of 19th Century Gothic Literature, often appearing unexpectedly and adding extra spice to the narrative, as in this sinister extract from The Case of the Famished Parson (1949): ‘Then, from above, came a series of piercing shrieks followed by peal upon peal of demoniacal laughter. The sheep-dog leapt from the hearth, turned his muzzle to the ceiling and howled dismally.’

A similar Gothic influence can be seen in Bellairs’ description of the castle on the Isle of Man, so charming when seen in the sunlight, it bears a very different aspect when visited at dusk, soon after an evil murder has been committed: ‘In the evening light it was all a bit unreal and fearful. Long shadows fell from the castle and, inside, the gloom was ominous and the imaginative might feel the shades of past kings and lords of Mann, their soldiery, their victims of the dungeons, their watchmen rubbing past in the half-light, or the giants said to be imprisoned in the foundations, roaring their heads off in rage. A man had once gone down a hole in one of the oubliettes and never been seen again.’ (Half-Mast For The Deemster, 1953.)

Bellairs enjoyed early success in Britain and the United States, but his novels faded in popularity and he has been forgotten by the general public. However, many of his books are being republished both in paperback and Kindle. They are good, workmanlike novels with likeable central investigators and intriguing murder mysteries. Also they offer the reader a sense of post-War Britain that brings that time alive. Although, with such a large out-put, the quality is sometimes variable, the majority of Bellairs’ books are an excellent and enjoyable read.

Too many of George Bellairs’ books have been republished by The British Library and Ipso books to list them all here. But a large number are available in paperback and on Kindle.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

Read a review of Carol’s latest book
The Fragility of Poppies

1 comment:

  1. This is a great article but surely Bellairs never manhandles or assaults a suspect. When does he do that, Carol?