In January, Kate @Crossexaminingcrime and I had planned to do a buddy read on a Bellairs reprint. Looks like the universe heard us coz I soon received an email from George Bellairs Estate about their latest re-release: Death Stops the Frolic.
Bellairs is well known for his Inspector Littlejohn series. Death Stops the Frolic is a standalone novel featuring Superintendent Nankivell.
Since we discussed the whole book, this post contains spoilers. If you are planning to read Death Stops the Frolic, you might want to wait until tomorrow to read my review.
Rekha: The story starts well. A brief gist of how Swarebridge came to be called Pogsley. (Swarebridge is Pogsley, Pogsley is Swarebridge) Then comes the anniversary celebrations – fun and food. The blackout didn’t stop them from having a good time. Mr Harbuttle’s crocodile was something that half enjoyed while the other half detested. Yet, they all joined in. This must have been fun – for the single men and women for their own reasons and, married men and women for another set of reasons. The funniest part is when Mr Harbuttle vanishes. I was thinking this was a part of his act. When people start to panic, I knew his ‘vanishing’ was not an act. I admit it was quite funny – poor chap falling through the trapdoor in the dark. But a knife stuck through his chest. Sinister!!!
Kate: I very much agree with you. The beginning of the book is the best part of it. The contrasts made between the countryside and the industrial nature of Swarebridge is expertly written and Bellairs weaves in a number of Old Testament allusions that lead nicely on to the Zion Chapel and its congregation. Bellairs extensively highlights the social activities of the church and he creates a brilliant setup for a murder – an open trap door to claim the first man in the follow-your-leader-line, in a pitch-black church setting. This setup offers many questions to be answered. How did the killer know Harbuttle would take the conga line on a new route? Why did he even take a new route in the first place? And of course who would want him dead? Moreover, the fact that most of the congregation were in the follow-your-leader line means they have an iron cast alibi, as no one left the line, so they couldn’t have finished him off with a knife in the heart. With such a crime Bellairs could have attempted an impossible crime mystery. It is a pity he did not!
Rekha: Superintendent Nankivell’s already at the Zion church and so is Dr Percival. Additional forces are called in and it is quite a chaos. This is where the story fell flat. The ‘chaos’ was not chaotic enough. Sergeant Craswell – Bellairs could have come up with a better name than this!!! (Sergeant Cromwell from Littlejohn) The detailed explanation of Nankivell’s religious beliefs, or lack of beliefs, was unnecessary. In no way does his belief hinder the investigation.
Kate: Once more we’re in agreement! Bellairs works with an interesting social milieu but he overdoes it in parts, giving us greater background information than we need. Moreover, despite it being blackout, as you say, the subsequent events are quite tame. Moreover, there is no forensic evidence to be gained from the crime scene. Great for the killer, but not so great for the reader, as that is one avenue of clues that we are cut off from.
Rekha: The suspects and witnesses (thankfully not all the witnesses) are described in detail. Honestly, I skipped through these details. It was getting a bit too much. Their doings didn’t seem quirky at all. I was like, why on earth is Bellairs dragging the story???
Kate: Yes the actual investigation is quite sparse, yet the background and social detail is immense. In particular, Bellairs seemed keen, whenever the Superintendent is walking to interview somebody, to give the readers extensive panoramic comments about the street he is walking on. This gets tiresome after a while.
Rekha: The names were a tad confusing to remember. Mary and Muriel – friends and both were proposed to by the dead man (before he died, that is. 😉 ) Harbuttle, Burt the butcher, Meister the Baker, uff!! I found the Baker to be a tad funny – the dedication and love he has for his mother nation (Switzerland) and the sleepless night he spends before revealing the vital information to Nankivell (at around 65% through the story) – nice fella!
Kate: In fairness to Bellairs he does give us an interesting array of motives for the crime. But I don’t feel he develops them well enough. He spreads himself too thinly, and the issue with the focus on motives is that this is information which can only be handed over to the reader directly, rather than be used as an opportunity for the reader to work things out. Consequently, the deliberate delaying on Bellairs’ part, of the baker’s evidence, is a little bit irksome. The double proposals are an interesting element, though I am unconvinced as to why girls so young would want to marry a 71-year-old! Personally, I think Bellairs set up this angle in order to provide a distraction for the second killing.
Rekha: Given that it was wartime and Nankivell pays a visit to the army camp, (the victim used to see the surroundings through his binoculars – looking glasses), I was thinking there could a spy angle to the story. Maybe Harbuttle saw a soldier conversing with an alien/enemy soldier or something.
Kate: I thought something similar, as soon as the binocular story came up, which meant that I gave little credence to the other motives, as it seemed much more likely that the motive for the crime would be Harbuttle having seen something criminal through his binoculars. The war has more of a background role in this story, though I enjoyed this description of a suspect’s premises: ‘Miss Sleaford’s shop reminded Nankivell of some fantastic kind of air-raid shelter.’
Rekha: Nankivell kinda gives up on the case in the beginning. Seeing the long line at the church soon after the murder, he thinks “this is a case for Scotland Yard”. As a Littlejohn fan, I was hoping the Scotland Yard would say, “Don’t worry Nankivell, we will send Littlejohn to Poglsey and all will be well.” Hahaha! Wouldn’t that be great!!
As the main character, I wish he hadn’t come to such a conclusion before starting to solve the case. If I have to compare him to Littlejohn, I would say, our sweet little Littlejohn is the best. I don’t remember him thinking about giving up or losing hope in solving the case.
Speaking of Littlejohn, at around 30% through the story, I did think (many a time) – was this story really written by Bellairs. Our sweet old Bellairs who wrote the famous Littlejohn series? I even thought of DNFing once or twice. The story gets better in the second half, thank god for that!!
Kate: Nankivell’s desire to quit was somewhat premature and I don’t think his reason of his family going to the church is a sufficient reason for him to want to avoid the case. It must be a first in crime fiction for the superior police officer to reject the idea of calling in Scotland Yard! I also felt the superintendent was a bit of a bland character, which became a bit problematic when he was the character we spent the most time with and got to know the most.
Rekha: The twist in the case is when the little boy Willie Pole gets murdered. Poor kid. Why didn’t Nankivell listen to him when he was pestering his mother about seeing someone while playing upstairs. I wish Nankivell had asked the poor boy! But killing Willie brings a new angle to the case – the murderer is cold-hearted enough to kill a child. Killing an adult and killing a child – two different stories. Murdering someone is sinister enough but murdering a child????
Kate: The murdering of children is not common in golden age detective fiction, though it does happen, and in this case because of the child knowing something they shouldn’t. I don’t think the Superintendent had heard the boy and part of me did think that if he knew something he should have just spoken to the Superintendent direct, rather than sneak off with his mate to an empty classroom. As soon as Willie starts to say he knows something, I knew he was a goner! This second death again shows that the killer is someone who knows how to use social activities and distractions to good advantage.
Rekha: The disappearance of Doyle and his arrest, later on, made the case easier to solve. Burt!!! Our good old butcher Burt. The reason for killing Harbuttle- he caught Burt and Doyle illegally slaughtering and distributing meat!! I was secretly hoping Burt to be a spy of some sort! Wouldn’t that be a nice twist to the story?
As it is in any other Bellairs story, Burt dies in the end. Tadaaa!!! The slaughter-er is slaughtered – by our Sware riverbed.
Kate: Given that the Superintendent does not have anything in the way of physical clues, I think Bellairs had no choice but to give his detective a break and introduce a character who could spill the beans. The motive for the crime has an interesting wartime flavour as you mention above, and I thought the killer had a clever and original way of fabricating an alibi. But the way it is discovered is less satisfying.
Rekha: There’s a tiny detail that I found to be a little sexist. At least, I felt uncomfortable reading about it. Tilly (Burt’s daughter) knows her dad has a thingy for pretty girls so she asks a couple of young women from the church to persuade him to allow Tilly into the church group again. They come along with their fluttering bosoms. Say what??? There was another mention of something similar. When it is discovered that Harbuttle is stabbed with a bread knife, the owner of the knife creates quite a scene. She was plump, okay, acceptable. Her feathered bosom disappeared into her plump backside (not the exact words, but this is what it meant). What is this about fluttering and feathered bosoms! Ugh!
Kate: Yes it does seem like the wrong era for fluttering bosoms, given the change in female clothing, but I think Bellairs seems more comfortable than many other classic crime writers when it comes to talking about sexuality. Take A Knife for Harry Dodd, with its central character who has a mistress, for example. However, in this novel, in keeping with the OTT social commentary and background information, Bellairs, in my opinion, overdoes the angle of men ogling women and having roving eyes. Although when it comes to describing women who are well-rounded, shall we say, Bellairs is not out of keeping with other writers at the time. Curtis Evans, for example, has suggested that Ngaio Marsh almost fat-shamed some of her characters.
However, when it comes to odd phraseology, I am still baffled by what Bellairs meant by pollydoodling? I tried to look it up on Google, but I couldn’t find a definition.
As you can see from the above discussion, I found the read to be disappointing but that’s only coz I kept my expectations high. Bellairs is a favourite and I just couldn’t digest the fact that this book turned out to be a tad dull. But Kate said something in the beginning of her mail which actually made me look at the story from another angle.
Here’s what Kate said: Well, no writer is perfect. She also said this is far better than another novel (by a different author). Not telling you which one it is until I re-read it. 😀