Surfeit of Suspects

Written by George Bellairs

Review written by LJ Hurst

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

Surfeit of Suspects
British Library
RRP: £8.99
Released: April 10 2019

George Bellairs started writing after the Second World War, with many of his early works set in the industrial north. It was a region in which war-time high wages had brought little benefit, as many of the businesses in Bellairs’ purview remained struggling and worn-out.

Surfeit of Suspects is a welcome addition to the British Library Crime Classics, a late edition from Bellairs’ writing career.

The offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company have blown up, and though little has been done in the way of financial damage, three men have been killed. The company was close to bankruptcy, with few assets, and few prospects of better days: the three men, three-fifths of the board, may have been having a secret meeting to discuss the future. Neither they, nor the pair who escaped death by their absence, were competent businessmen (though they thought they were).

The number of suspects begins to expand as resentful wives and mistresses emerge, along with enraged parents whose wedding dowries for their daughters had been invested and lost in the struggling business. Questions begin as to how the business kept going regarding the cash-flow and bank overdrafts. What sort of bank manager would authorise funds for such a business? Whose life insurance underwrote the overdraft? And was he among the dead, or the survivors? The story is infused with authenticity as Bellairs was a bank official himself, who wrote fiction in his evenings.

It becomes clear that Evingden is not the small town it had been before the War, and in fact the Joinery is now in what is thought of as the ‘old town’, while the ‘new town’ is growing elsewhere. John Betjeman put it into rhyme:

          “I do some mild developing. The sort of place I need

          Is a quiet country market town that's rather run to seed

          A luncheon and a drink or two, a little savoir faire -

          I fix the Planning Officer, the Town Clerk and the Mayor.”

In some towns, though, it did not need an outsider to ‘fix’ anyone. In a town such as Evingden wealthy men (or men who wanted to be wealthy) might decide to start moving things around to suit themselves. A Joinery Works that no one would lose sleep, over might be very desirable if it could be bought for a low price and sold to the local authority (who wanted such a site for a new bus terminus to serve the ever expanding new town), at a high price. The question is who such men, or women, might be.

That is where this book gets interesting for the twenty-first century reader because Bellairs describes a problem that has emerged again: anonymous partnerships who hide their ultimate beneficiaries as trusts, with anonymity and without faces.

These days, corporations and individuals hide their beneficial ownership across continents, but Bellairs’ Superintendent Littlejohn (fortunately for police budgets), does not have to go further than the Channel coast as he attempts to discover how simple family-trusts have mutated into monsters (that perhaps have corporate motives for murder).

The distinction between old and new allows Bellairs to play with the social order, too. Those who still have money don’t even live in the town: they reside in the pretty villages outside. In the town, old branches of institutions such as banks have been kept open while new branches are opened in the new shopping areas: as businesses fade from the old town, the turnover in their local bank declines. Imagine what it feels like to wonder whether the branch you manage will be kept open until you retire? No wonder that Superintendent Littlejohn will pay several visits to the old institutions.

The back cover describes Surfeit of Suspects as ‘a gripping masterpiece of misdirection’. I would concur wholeheartedly that indeed it is.

Book Reviews
About Us
Contact Us

Privacy Policy | Contact Shots Editor