Saturday, 28 September 2019

The Case Of The Demented Spiv by George Bellairs

The Case Of The Demented Spiv (The Inspector Littlejohn Mysteries Book 13) by George Bellairs
First published in the UK in 1949. Republished by Ipso Books in 2016.

One of my Classics Club reads and my 1940s book for my 2019-20 Decade Challenge

How I got this book:
Received a copy for signing up to the Crime Classics Review Club

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A mad man’s outburst about a body in a mill calls Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard to a sleepy English village. 

It’s a rainy, uneventful evening in the Oddfellows’ Arms until a man bursts into the pub, clearly unstable, and ranting about a body in Fennings’ Mill.

The police investigate and stumble upon a body — the face smeared with theatrical make-up and a false moustache pasted neatly over the lip. Once the national news descends, Inspector Faddiman calls in Inspector Littlejohn to help him uncover the dark, hidden secrets in this quiet, provincial town. Soon it becomes clear that a lot of people can’t, and won’t tell the truth…

About Inspector Littlejohn 
Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is a shrewd yet courteous sleuth who splits his time between quaint English villages, the scenic Isle of Man and French Provinces. With a sharp tongue and a dry sense of humour, Littlejohn approaches his work with poise and confidence, shifting through red-herrings and solving even the most perplexing of cases.

My second Inspector Littlejohn novel after A Knife For Harry Dodd and folks who only read series in the right order should probably glance away now because A Knife was book 20 and this is book 13. Fortunately my scattergun approach to reading them doesn't seem to matter because we hardly see anything of the recurring characters personal lives so there's no overarching storyline to spoil and each novel has been an entirely self contained story.

I loved this mill town mystery with its class clashes and neighbours twitching their net curtains at every opportunity. The Case Of The Demented Spiv gives us a convincing portrait of post-war England with rationing still in evidence and most people living pretty austere lives. Of course, the time period does bring a few problems with examples of dated attitudes. I was surprised by how modern Bellairs' portrayal of his female characters is - one is even a dab with a sword! But the mental health representation isn't ideal - you might already have guessed that from the title - and I found examples of casual antisemitism to be offensive. The eponymous Spiv of the early chapters morphs into The Jew later on for no reason I could see other than its derogatory implications.

If you can look past those issues though, I would recommend The Case Of The Demented Spiv as a good period piece. The mystery itself is wonderfully intricate with a good mix of red herrings and genuine clues. The varied cast of characters are great fun and the opening scene in the Oddfellows Arms pub is perfect. If you've never visited a traditional English pub, this is what you're missing! I'm looking forward to reading more Inspector Littlejohn mysteries in due course. I know I've got at least six more to catch up to Harry Dodd and hope they will all be as satisfying as The Demented Spiv.

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Pennsylvania, USA

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  1. I love when a series is able to be read out of order because sometimes it can be refreshing to return to familiar main characters but not have to keep up with everything in a particular order. But I think I am going to pass on this one because I don't really want to read casual antisemitism...

    1. It's an aspect of this novel which is very much of its time. Sometimes I wonder if publishers should clean up such problematic language before republishing older works?

  2. That anti-semitism. Yikes!

    It's like when I first read And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie and there's a lot of anti-semitism in the first chapter espec. and it's like... *really* surprised they didn't change this when they changed the title of the book!

    1. It's an issue I've not quite made up my mind about. On the one hand I don't want to read these outdated attitudes now, but would editing them out take away from the authenticity of the novel? A difficult question