Title: Calamity at Harwood(Chief Inspector Littlejohn #7)
Author: George Bellairs
First published in 1945; re-published by Mysterious Press on 23rd Dec 2014
Genre: Mystery and Thrillers
Solomon Burt is a successful property developer. Whatever project he pitches in, it turns out to be a grand success. But one day, Burt finally gets to taste the fruits of failure. The deal he was supposed to purchase and immediately sell has gone bad. To add to his woes, his car breaks down on his way back home. He leaves the driver to the repairs and strolls to the nearest village and a dilapidated mansion by the name of Harwood Hall grabs his attention.
The current owner of Harwood is not ready to sell his ancestral home. Finally, Burt has his way – buys the mortgage and cheats the mortgagee Mr Bowells. Nothing can be done now. Burt converts the mansion into what is called in modern days a service apartment. The mansion now holds 8 tenants. There’s heated water supply and electricity. But the renovations are marred by poltergeists’ pranks. Burt doesn’t believe in poltergeists though!
One night, Burt wakes up to see three poltergeists in his room. They drag him to the pond and ask him to go skinny dipping in the middle of the night. They steal his clothes and run away. Burt manages to cover himself with a rag and walks to one of his tenants – Carberry-Peacockes’ apartment. He then rushes out of their house, is coshed in the head on his way and falls down the stairs, breaking his neck. The tenants believe that a ghost killed Mr Burt. One of the tenants’ packs and leaves while the rest stay. The local police are not able to solve the case; then there is the start of WW2 so Inspector Littlejohn is asked to investigate.
What a story! Wow! There’s a first for everything – a poltergeist and Nazis in a Littlejohn story. It goes without saying that the characters are quirky and the poltergeists are quirkier. Take a look at some of their pranks:
The first signs of renewed hostilities against Mr Burt and his works were manifest three days after the outbreak of war and in the kitchen of the Carberry-Peacockes. Seeking relaxation from the strain of recent events, they were listening to a broadcast of gramophone records of an impressionist ballet, when they were disturbed by similar noises in the maid’s quarters. On investigation, they found all the crockery and china scattered, broken on the floor, the chairs and tables overturned, the refrigerator inverted in the middle of the room and the electric stove in the sink.
Looks like the poltergeists were having a ballet of their own. 😀
The weird part of this is, the poltergeists always unplug the electrical appliances before chucking them around.
Littlejohn stays at the mansion and is given Burt’s bed to sleep. The bed is so comfortable that Littlejohn doesn’t feel like waking up in the mornings and wishes to remain in Harwood for a long time (Shh, don’t tell Letty!) As the case proceeds, Littlejohn feels that he can no longer investigate alone – this has something to do with another of poltergeist manifestation – so he calls his side-kick Detective Sergeant Cromwell.
Littlejohn and Cromwell have a discussion about the case and philosophy. Philo-what now? Cromwell is very health conscious and follows routine to the t. Littlejohn loves to bathe in hot water while Cromwell prefers cold water. Why? Cromwell thinks hot water saps the vitality and washes away the natural energy of the skin, letting out the energy. Such profound words!! *Claps*
The residents in Harwood Hall include: The Carberry-Peacockes (I misread it as Cranberry-Peacockes every single time!); an American couple by the name of Hartwright; Miss Freyle (leaves soon after the manifests); Arthur Williatt; The Pott sisters – one of them is stone deaf; Professor Braun, an anthropologist; Mr Brownrigg – he’s paid a year’s rent in advance but is still abroad.
The Carberry-Peacockes believe in ghosts and whatnot while Prof. Braun is short-tempered and keeps to himself most of the times. The lodge-keeper Stone seems to be scared of something and Littlejohn doesn’t know why until the latter half of the story. The ghost angle is investigated and Littlejohn uncovers a sinister plot behind the murder. This is where the Nazi angle is introduced into the story. Let me not go into detail and spoil the story for those who are planning to read it. But I will give you a hint – WW2’s begun.
The plotting is stronger when compared to the Bellairs’ books I have read so far. It gets a tad dull in the middle but this has got to do with Littlejohn poking and prodding everywhere, looking for clues – he doesn’t believe in ghosts either so he has to find a ‘human angle’ to the murder. I wouldn’t call this a mystery – it is more of a thriller. In other words, Calamity at Harwood is not a whodunit.
The ending is brilliant. Less of deduction and more of revelation, it felt good to see Littlejohn in a new ‘avatar’. I recommend this book to those who read books of the genre ‘Mystery and Thrillers’. I think this book puts the series in a new light. But remember, read this book for the whydunit and not the whodunit.
Second Opinion: Aidan @MysteriesAhoy!