George Bellairs is a byword in the world of classic British crime fiction. The pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902-1982), a Manchester bank manager as well as a freelance journalist, he published 57 popular classic police procedural mysteries featuring Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard between 1941 and 1980. Corpses in Enderby (John Gifford, 1954) is 22nd in the series.
The small town of Enderby is stunned when Ned Bunn, a prosperous and unpleasant merchant, is shot in front of his store one night. He’d just thrown his assistant out for courting Bunn’s 40-year-old daughter, after gleefully announcing his intent to foreclose on the mortgage he held on the store next door. Since the assistant was the only one known to be nearby, the local police investigator rushes to pin the crime on him. His superior the Chief Constable of the county is not so sure and calls in Scotland Yard for a second look.
Inspector Littlejohn and Sergeant Cromwell arrive in Enderby as the large and decidedly peculiar Bunn family gathers to attend the funeral and more importantly to learn how the decedent’s considerable assets were to be distributed. As Littlejohn soon learns, a trust established by the previous generation was dissolved with Ned Bunn’s death, and as a result several individuals in the family will inherit thousands of pounds.
This strong motive for murder leads Littlejohn to look closely at the whereabouts of family members at the time of the shooting. Interviewing most of them is painful, as they are more than a little eccentric, and most of them cheerfully dissemble without a qualm. Bellairs created a set of comical characters in the Bunns who are entertaining in their horridness.
But the Bunns aren’t the only ones in the story who are so awful they are funny. The landlord of the inn where Littlejohn and Cromwell are staying and his wife treat the policemen to a long-running domestic drama that unexpectedly resolves itself just as Littlejohn hones in on the culprit and could do without the distraction.
The characters and their antics tend to usurp the investigation in this story and downplay the iniquity of the crimes. I plan to read a few more in this series to see if this is a pattern. Fortunately many of them have been released in ebook format and are more readily available than they would have been 10 years ago. For devotees of classic crime fiction.