Title: Death in the Night Watches (Chief Inspector Littlejohn #8)
Author: George Bellairs
First published in 1946; republished on 23rd Dec 2014 by Mysterious Press
Genre: Mystery and Thrillers, Crime Classics
George Bellairs is surely an all-time favourite author. Be it his storytelling or quirky characters, there’s nobody like our dear ol’ Bellairs.
In Death in the Night Watches, we are first introduced to the scene of the crime. The war-time setting is obvious. Henry Worth’s textile mill is now converted into a military production unit. Before the onset of the war, the factory was filled with men. Now, there’s a womanly touch – a cap hanging on one of the drills and an old jam jar filled with flowers. Five men are set to watch over the factory for the night. Four of them play bridge while the fifth is carving a wooden toy for his son.
Henry Worth is at the factory today; he too joins the watchers once a week. At midnight, he ventures out for a quick stroll. He sees a tiny spark of light in the unused shed and walks in. As soon as he enters, he smells gas. Before he could run for help, he’s locked in the shed. He tries to break open the window but it is too late. He finally succumbs to the toxic atmosphere in the shed.
“To gas him wasn’t the method of the average working man. It strikes me as being a cunning form of killing, such as might be used by a ninny … you know, one who shudders at physical violence like fisticuffs, knifing, shooting or strangling. It’s a soft way. It might even be called a woman’s way.…”
Detective-Inspector Thomas Littlejohn is called to investigate the murder. As soon as he arrives, he discovers the unhappy story of Worth’s inheritance. Old William Worth married a girl younger than his children. He died soon after, leaving all his money and property to his young wife, much to the chagrin of his three children (two sons and a daughter). We are then given a brief history of the Worth family’s children. Daughter Alice married a French Count – he has no money nor fame. Henry, the older son, was interested in engineering and pursued the family business. Gerald, the younger son, was interested in art and history, much to his father’s annoyance.
With William Worth dead and the money now in his young widow’s hands, the children are bound to depend on her for life. She would surely outlive them unless she somehow happens to die young.
Well, well, we have the wartime setting, a disgruntled family, two murders and all the suspects have alibis. How will Thomas Littlejohn solve the case, eh? Tommy always finds a way to solve any case – impossible murder? Nope, impossible is not a word you would find in Littlejohn’s dictionary.
If I am to make a list of best detectives, Littlejohn is going to be first on the list. The thing I like the most about Littlejohn series is, along with the detective, the readers are also given a chance to solve the case. It’s like teamwork; there’s Thomas, poking, prodding and gathering clues, then there’s us (the reader), connecting the dots along with our dear Littlejohn.
Of all the fictional detectives I have come across, Littlejohn is the most hard-working fella. He makes sure of meeting the suspects(visits their homes, drinks tea with them), neighbours and anybody who is ready to reveal anything of importance pertaining to the case.
In this case, when Littlejohn hears about Mrs Vera Worth’s dog’s sudden death, he wants to investigate it further. Did someone try to poison Vera? (She gave the tea meant for her to the dog and it died a day later) But in that case, who killed Henry? Henry was known to be a ladies man and this created quite a rift between him and the married men (whose wives were charmed by Henry). When young Vera was brought into the house as their new stepmother, Henry had to have her and he did until the old man died and the contents of the Will were brought out.
As you reach halfway through the story, the alibis of the suspects check out but Littlejohn is keen on keeping his eyes on the family. Someone in the family has been holding a grudge for too long. There are two murders in this story. First is that of Henry. The second is that of Miss Rickson. Rickie, as she was known as, has been the children’s governess and now a permanent resident of the Worth Hall. Littlejohn has a chat with her and a few hours later, Inspector Kane comes to him with a piece of bad news – Rickson is dead. Now, who would have wanted to kill her? The family last saw her in their dining room when she came asking for the name of the Scotland Yard man. Was the killer afraid that she would identify them to the police?
The clues are all there, right in front of your eyes, staring at you like a cat in the dark. The murderer is someone who plays a major role in the story. But who could it be? Suspense and mystery are at an all-time high and you will want to know ‘what happens next’. The story doesn’t end in the usual Bellairs’ style (meaning the killer does not commit suicide). Death in the Night Watches is surely making its way into the best of Bellairs list.
This might have nothing to do with the mystery: I really like how Bellairs has portrayed Littlejohn as a charming and loving man. He respects one and all – be it the gardener or secretary or someone working for the government. Also, his love for his wife Lettie knows no limits. At one point in time, Littlejohn meets an ex-constable who is obese and everything that screams “health issues”. Littlejohn thinks “maybe this is how my life would have been if not for Lettie.” Aww! Also, I was happy to read about a reference made to the poltergeists’ mystery at Harwood – a reference to Littlejohn’s previous case Calamity at Harwood.