Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
George Bellairs, who began his long writing career during the Second World War, is being re-discovered. DEATH OF A BUSYBODY, now republished as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, and was his third novel, set during the World War II.
Either accents have changed considerably, or Bellairs thought that Leicestershire was set somewhere deep in the middle of Norfolk. Mind you, he also seems to have thought that Nottingham (fictionalised as ‘Trentbridge’) – to judge from the conversation of its local police – was another name for Tottenham. Given that this is a village murder mystery you get quite a lot of dialect: for while there is a small educated class of Vicar, a couple of residents in nice houses, and the busybody herself wealthy; the majority of the characters consist of some smaller farmers and the villagers who might be out harvesting (their betters shooting the game put up by the reapers), or like Gormley, the Vicar’s gardener, emptying the vicarage cesspit.
Contrary to the author of Ecclesiastes who said ‘He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him’, Gormley does not fall into the pit, for halfway through his cleaning duties he goes on strike and walks off to the village. Neither does anyone break a hedge, though a hedge is very important in blocking the view of the vicarage garden from the village proper. You will see all of this from the map helpfully provided. Instead, the pit emptied of its waste and now containing only a few inches of water, is where Miss Tither, the busybody, comes to rest and drowns. The question is, on a day when so many people were out and about – seeing and being seen as they moved – who could have found even a few minutes to bludgeon her and slip her body into the pit? Alibis will be sought and alibis will be tested. A second-hand purchase proves to be a villain’s undoing, but Bellairs manages to delay this. He also cleverly diverts attention from the importance of distant views and windows opening; something which starts quite early with the vicar looking out of his upstairs windows until driven in behind glass by the stench, which we then discover comes from the Gormley’s labours. Miss Tither is still alive.
Seemingly Miss Tither was troublesome on every moral matter such as sexual relations, true or not, and on religious beliefs as well. In the background is a probably fraudulent charity, though not clearly linked to the village, the sort of thing that had needed investigation since the days of Hugh Greene’s ‘Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’. Some people have coped with her goading better than others, as we learn. She, though, must have been a detective herself for the vicar never realised how much had been going on that she could stir.
Miss Tither’s death is the result of two crimes interacting, but in turn there are multiple criminals on either side. DEATH OF A BUSYBODY ends with an allusion on which Martin Edwards does not comment in his Introduction – the revealed relationship of two of the villains echoes that of the Tulliver siblings in George Eliot’s THE MILL ON THE FLOSS. Eliot ended with a double-suicide, Bellairs with a hanging and a living death. He went on to write another fifty or so novels; the skills he uses here will make you realise why.