Death of a Busybody (1942) is the third of a series of nearly sixty mystery books featuring Inspector (later Chief Inspector, etc.) Thomas Littlejohn, published between 1941 and 1980.
Death of a Busybody brings us to one of twin villages, Hilary Magna (the other being Hilary Parva), where the skinny and scholarly vicar, Rev. Ethelred Claplady (who keeps bees and is working on a tome on apiculture) spots from his window, the local busybody Miss Ethel Tither, haranguing atheist Mr Haxley and attempting to ‘convert’ him. Later in the day, Miss Tither’s body is found, face down in the cesspit of the vicarage. The local Inspector Oldfield has a lot on his hands, and the Chief Constable, Sir Francis Winstanley decides to call in Scotland Yard; and so it happens that Littlejohn is sent in.
Littlejohn, assisted by the local PC Samuel Harriwinckle (Oldfield checks in now and then, but is mostly occupied with other cases) begins to investigate. The residents at Hillary Magna are friendly and willing to cooperate and Littlejohn also finds that staying at the pub, The Bell, has its advantages for he can also overhear local gossip and identify various threads to follow. It emerges that many in Hilary Magna had a reason to do away with Miss Tither. Miss Tither not only sniffed out all the ‘scandal’ in the village but used her tongue freely to try to ‘reform’ ‘sinners’, besides also constantly badgering the poor Reverend to intervene. As a consequence, many in the village bore her a grudge and she had been at the receiving end of threats. In addition, her relative and heir, Rev Wynyard may have been keeping the real nature of his work from her, finding out which had been a shock to her (nothing horrifying but just not as pious as she’d been under the impression it was), and led her to consider altering her will. Speaking to people connected and unconnected with Miss Tither, Littlejohn begins to piece together the mystery, while in London, his deputy DS Cromwell (who thinks of his illustrious namesake when posed with a conundrum) takes on inquiries to assist the investigation.
This was my first time reading Bellairs (whom I only found out about through Rekha at The Book Decoder, who simply loves these books—linked is her most recent Bellairs review), and I thought it a wonderful read. My favourite elements of the book were its setting and characters. Bellairs paints a vivid picture of the village and its inhabitants. Each character, major or minor, is excellently drawn out—we get a look at their natures, idiosyncrasies, eccentricities; we learn their backstories; and their relationships with one another. Among my favourites was Mr Thornbush (courting Miss Tither’s maid, Sarah Russell), who sprouts psalms at the drop of a hat (much to Littlejohn’s annoyance; though on a fun note, Littlejohn ‘hears’ brass and cymbals each time this happens). Also, Constable Harriwincle who loves his food, and puffs up with pride at the important task he has been given and at having to assist a Scotland Yard man; he does his work sincerely, in fact even taking the initiative to track down information and follow up on leads, and I was really pleased with how things turned out for him (He reminded me in a way of Strawberry from Richard Adams’ Watership Down when he helped his friends and was filled with pride at having done so).
The village too comes across really well with dynamics between people, the little details of daily life like the harvest (and sadly also the shooting of rabbits and other ‘vermin’ alongside); preparations for harvest services at the church; and being wartime, blackout every evening.
As far as the mystery was concerned, there were indeed several suspects, and like a police procedural, we come upon information as Littlejohn goes around talking to different people. Re whodunit, once Littlejohn spoke to one of the characters, I could pretty much guess the who, but there was still a surprise in the plot I hadn’t seen coming at all (in fact, more than one), and some other aspects of the story that I could work out only along the way.
Overall this turned out to be a lovely read with humour in the writing and well fleshed out characters, also a mystery that kept me engaged, even if I did guess parts of it. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more Bellairs soon.