Title: Death in Desolation (Inspector Littlejohn #45)
Author: George Bellairs
First published in 1967; republished by Agora Book on 21st September 2016
Genre: Mystery and Thrillers
Death in Desolation is the 45th book in George Bellairs’ Chief Inspector Littlejohn series.
Police investigate the fire at the desolate farm of Great Lands. The owner of the farm, Harry Quill, is dead while his invalid wife is lying unconscious. Mrs. Quill had somehow managed to crawl and set the hay on fire to alert the authorities. The strain resulted in a stroke and she later died in the hospital without regaining consciousness.
Meanwhile, a notorious gang named The Black Lot has been raiding isolated farms. Chief Superintendent Littlejohn and his assistant Inspector Cromwell are investigating the case. When they learn of the murder at the Marcroft farm, they decide to investigate as it might be related to The Black Lot.
The criminal gang have never ventured into murder so far. The death of Harry Quill might be the first. But it so happens that on the same night as Quill’s death, the Black Lot were arrested in the North of Scotland.
Littlejohn and Cromwell learn of the ‘famous’ Quills. The Quills owned over five hundred acres of farm land. Harry Quill’s had a series of losses and had to sell off a part of the farm. When he died, his last wish was for Harry to get back the lost land. Harry put in all the money he had and purchased the farms back from its owners. But this made him pauper and his wife refused to part with her money. (She was a Quill cousin and Harry’s missus.)
It becomes pretty clear that Harry Quill’s murder was not a case of robbery gone wrong. So who killed Harry Quill and why?
I was getting into a reading slump and I knew the only thing that could rescue me was a Bellairs novel. I am a huge fan of this series. Death in Desolation and three other novels are the only ones pending in my list as of now and I will be done with the series. (The republished ones, I mean; some of the earlier books are not available – at least not in India. )
Reading a Littlejohn novel is always an enjoyable experience. Eclectic mix of characters, country setting, a whole lot of good detective work (Littlejohn is the best!) and of course, some chit-chat, a drink or two and some yummy food at the pub.
When Littlejohn and Cromwell reach Rubgy station – from where they will be picked up by the Midshire CID, Cromwell tells Littlejohn of an aunt of his – a black sheep of the family who ran away with a porter. There isn’t any time for details as Sergeant Crampitt of the Midshire CID arrives. He mistakes Cromwell for Littlejohn, introduces himself and tells ‘Littlejohn’ that he recognized him right away from the photos in the paper. He then expectantly looks at Littlejohn (the real one), waiting to be introduced. HOW??? How can someone mistake Cromwell for Littlejohn!!! HOW???
I get annoyed when people do not recognize Littlejohn, all right. The best detective in Scotland Yard deserves to be recognized, awarded and whatnots. Not ignored or mistaken for someone else. SOMEONE ELSE!!!
Okay, enough drama, let’s get on with the review.
There’s a backstory about The Black Lot; they are always dressed in black – from head to toe and raid only isolated farms. So, when Harry was found dead and his wife unconscious, it was believed to be another of Black Lot’s victims. But it so happened that the gang was arrested on the night Quill was killed.
Harry Quill had a mistress. Rose, a barmaid at the Marketplace pub, and Harry were more than friends – or so the rumor said. He was seen spending time with her in her quarters. When Littlejohn and Cromwell talk to her, she says she and Harry were just friends.
Harry had not children and the farm will be inherited by his three nephews. Then comes a plot twist. Upon his death, Harry’s estates will be inherited by his (invalid) wife. And if she too dies, Rose will inherit the whole lot of 500 acres of farmland! And they were supposed to be ‘just friends’. Hah!
The Quills have a family lawyer. As the detectives investigate the case, they learn Bilbow, one of the lawyers at the Nunn firm, was close with Harry’s wife. Then there is Aunt Clara, the oldest and head of Quill family and feared by all. She ‘orders’ Littlejohn to have a chat with her after Harry and Millie’s funeral.
I loved the eccentric Quill family. They are teetotalers – all but two of Harry’s nephews. But as the case proceeds, we learn Harry Quill was known to enjoy a glass of stout with Rose. The Quills are a closely knit family. Every Quill must be present at Harry and Millie’s funeral – some travel for almost a day on the motorcycle – just to attend a funeral. If anyone skips important family events, the rest of the fam visits their house to enquire about it. Nosy lot!
There’s a twist in the case halfway through – something to do with Aunt Clara and her hold over the Quill family. The story takes an interesting turn when the detectives learn the lawyers may be involved too. Suspects aren’t plenty but it becomes pretty clear that someone’s hiding – or rather, lying about their alibi and their relation with Harry Quill.
I really loved the clues that finally led to Littlejohn identifying the killer… Um, well, at least he thought he had identified the killer. He then gets another ‘light bulb’ moment – asks the ‘accused’ to stay in place while he goes in search of one last (missing) piece of the puzzle. I did not like this last-minute-twist. Though Littlejohn was right in identifying the killer, the twist came out of nowhere. One of the good guys turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, so as to speak. Why? Why did you have to turn them into a villain, Bellairs? WHY?
Overall, Death in Desolation by George Bellairs was an engrossing and entertaining read. If you are new to the series, I recommend you start with one of the earlier books in this series. If you are a Bellairs fan, please add this book to your TBR and thank me later. 😉
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