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Wednesday, 11 December 2019

‘The Body in the Dumb River’ by George Bellairs

British Library Publishing, 
September 2019.
ISBN: 978-0-71235214-7 (PB)

“The water’s dark and muddy-looking and there’s little flow in it.  Cast a dead body among the reeds and mud there and it might never be found.”

Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Tom Littlejohn is in East Anglia where he is assisting the Fenshire Constabulary to prepare a forgery case.  He looks forward to returning to London and escaping the torrential rain that has blighted the fenlands since his arrival.  Then, just before he is due to leave, staff engaged in flood rescue operations come across a man lying across a tree trunk that has become stuck in debris near Tylecote Bridge.  They pull him from the swollen river in the hope that he might be saved, but when it becomes obvious that he is dead, the rescuers take him to the nearby Blandish Arms.  There, the village constable discovers that the deceased has been stabbed and realises that this is more than simply an unfortunate accident.  The police are already stretched to breaking point as they deal with the impact of the floods and so Fenshire’s Chief Constable asks Littlejohn to assist the local police in what is now a murder investigation.  

The victim is James Lane, a well-liked man known locally as Jim, who ran a popular hoop-la stall with the travelling neighbourhood fair.  Littlejohn and his team set to work to discover who could possibly have been responsible for such a genial fellow’s death.  Then the dead man’s driving licence is recovered and the contents reveal that James Lane had another and very different life far from the East Anglian fens.  All of Littlejohn’s people skills and insight will be required to find out why a man from Yorkshire ended up in the flooded waters of Dumb River.

Littlejohn employs psychology and common sense to probe Lane’s tangled, often unhappy, personal life.  His character recalls an era of literary sleuths who were dependable, trustworthy and reassuring, in a novel that attests to the enduring appeal of enigmatic crime fiction.  This is a murder mystery that is well written and carefully constructed and I found it entertaining, refreshing and enjoyable. 

As always with the British Library Classics, Martin Edwards provides an excellent introduction that succinctly contextualises the novel.  I would also point readers to a superb article by Carole Westron, one of her Golden Age series in the Mystery People E-Zine.  The essay can be found in Volume 6, Issue 7 on pages 10 – 12 (2017), or
Reviewer: Dot Marshall-Gent
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
Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.  

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