Published by the British Library Crime Classics,
10 April 2019.
ISBN: 978-0-7123-5238-3 (PB)
This book begins with a bang when a violent explosion destroys the offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company. When rescuers reach the scene, they discover three bodies in the wreckage of the building, who are identified as three of the five directors of the company. The next day, as soon as the forensic experts confirm that the explosion was not an accident, the local police call in Scotland Yard. Superintendent Littlejohn and Inspector Cromwell are assigned to the case and head to Surrey to investigate.
Littlejohn is confronted with a surfeit of suspects, plus several possible motives and a vast number of questions. What were the three company directors doing in the office at that time in the evening when the Managing Director, Fred Hoop, who was not present, insists that there was no meeting scheduled? Had Fred Hoop, with or without the connivance of his father, the Chairman of the company, deliberately attempted to destroy all the stock and other assets of the failing company in order to claim the insurance? Or was this explosion intended to murder one of the men and the others were collateral damage? Who, amongst the numerous suspects, was in a position to acquire dynamite and place it in the cellar of the building?
Littlejohn and Cromwell follow up clues in an exceptionally complex case and soon realise that, while there seems to be little reason for killing two of the victims, the same cannot be said for the third man, John Willie Dodd. There are motives for wishing Dodd dead related to both his personal life and his business dealings. He was forced to marry the daughter of a powerful local figure, Alderman Vintner, after he got her pregnant, but soon betrayed her with other women, and recently has been involved with Bella Hoop, the wife of Fred Hoop. Bella, a vain and shallow young woman, has left her husband and is staying with her long-suffering mother. The business reasons for wishing Dodd dead are even more compelling, as he has persuaded all of his co-directors to invest heavily in Excelsior and, when it fails, they will lose everything. Even the local bank manager, a man nearing retirement, is in a difficult position, having allowed loans to the firm which are unlikely to be repaid. At first, the case against the unprepossessing Fred Hoop seems very dark, with both personal and business motives for murdering Dodd, but Littlejohn is a detective with an instinct for corruption and he is determined to delve deeper into the secrets of the swiftly developing, industrial town.
Surfeit of Suspects is one of the books newly republished by the British Library and it is a pleasure to see Bellairs represented there. The plot deals with financial complexities, which Bellairs, whose day job was as a bank manager, manages to make clear and interesting. His characterisation is always vivid, with small, lively, cameo descriptions of the characters as they are introduced, and a narrative that is lightened by quiet, wry humour, as in the case of the unfortunate bank manager, George Frederick Handel Roper. Littlejohn is an appealing protagonist, honourable, hard-working, intelligent and kind to those in trouble, and his friendship with Cromwell works very well. Littlejohn is one of the almost forgotten detectives, who has his roots in the Golden Age, and deserves to be better remembered. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys high quality, traditional, 20th century police procedurals.
Reviewer: Carol Westron
George Bellairs (1902-1982) a bank manager, a talented crime author, part time journalist and Francophile. His detective stories, written in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, combine wicked crimes and classic police procedurals, set in small British communities. Best known for his Detective Littlejohn stories, he is celebrated as one Britain’s crime classic greats. Discover more about George Bellairs at his website