George Bellairs’ Intruder in the Dark begins with Cyril Savage’s arrival in Plumpton Bois to collect an inheritance from his great-aunt, Miss Melody Johnson. Impatient, he inspects the house early, only to find that it has been ransacked and the cellar door is locked. He breaks it down and is killed by a blow to the head. There’s some debate over the motive for this crime—whether the intruder was a random robber or connected to Miss Johnson’s past—so Superintendent Littlejohn and Inspector Cromwell are called from Scotland Yard to sort it out.
This was my first Littlejohn and Cromwell mystery and I was pleasantly surprised—it was hard to put down! Their investigation comprises a series of interviews with the townsfolk, who all have different impressions of Miss Johnson and her family depending on their place in the town. Since Littlejohn and Cromwell split up for their interviews and confer afterwards, they’re rarely in the same scene. They’re both competent and inquisitive, but they blurred together in my mind, as neither displays many unique traits. In contrast, the townsfolk are vividly written. I came away with a strong impression of the background characters and suspects. I suppose I should keep reading this series to learn more about Littlejohn and Cromwell—perhaps they’re better established elsewhere. Any suggestions?
Each interviewee has a little bit of suspicion and pettiness about them, which makes them memorable and occasionally entertaining, e.g. Mrs. Murphy:
“What sort of woman was Sarah Rasp, who used to be the Johnsons’ maid?”
“A sly, secretive sort. You might also call her sinister…”
Mrs. Murphy made a point of reading most of the paperbacks covering romance, crime and horror before she put them in the rack in the shop for ready sale. It added greatly to her vocabulary of pithy words and phrases to use against her enemies. (Loc 950)
What complicates the mystery is that its motivations stem from events fifty years before. Bellairs conveys the passage of time well by making the past feel suitably distant. Many witnesses are either deceased or missing and everyone has had decades to get their story straight. My favorite moment was this epiphany by Littlejohn:
Littlejohn realised that in his contacts with these old people, these relics of events of more than half a century ago, he was among those in whom the fires of passion and enthusiasm were extinguished for ever. Many of the characters had quitted the stage long since. Their shadows were all that remained for those left behind to hate or despise. (Loc 1896)
Once the mystery is closed, the book ends without additional fluff. The most awkward part of crime fiction is when everyone has to stand around after and congratulate each other on their cleverness (because this is really the writer congratulating himself/herself). Usually, I skim this bit, but Bellairs has a knack for timing without any wasted words. I look forward to reading many others. (And I do mean “many”—he was quite prolific!)
Overall: 4.8 I loved the small town vibe and pace of the mystery. I would have liked more development/information with Littlejohn and Cromwell, but if I can get this from other books in the series, the lack of it here isn’t really a ‘flaw,’ and they were otherwise competent and clever.
Nota Bene: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Ipso Books (via NetGalley)
Translation: Read it!