He'd Rather Be Dead

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

He'd Rather Be Dead
Agora Books
Released: June 04, 2020

It is August 1942 in a south coast holiday resort where war-time restrictions are only loosely applied and fear of air raids seems to have disappeared. 

At least all the leading figures of Westcombe (misprinted as ‘Westcome’ on the cover) are willing to attend the Mayor’s annual lunch (Bellairs provides a copy of the menu, only partly supplied from the Black Market) to eat and drink their fill, and despite nearly all of them hating or fearing the Mayor for his power over them, official or unofficial or criminal. More unfortunately those guests must soon face their failings for scarcely does the Mayor stand to give a short speech than he falls over, his body in spasm, poisoned with strychnine. As strychnine is a fast-acting poison those nearest him are the most likely suspects but this mystery is not to be solved so quickly, for the Mayor and his neighbours shared the same food and drink – the poison reached him in some other way if no sleight of hand took place.

Westcombe, like so many boroughs before police re-organisation in the early ‘Sixties, has a Chief Constable of its own, but he has motives for not wanting to stir things. The guests may have been in fear of the Mayor but they lack the same fear of Chief Constable Boumphrey. To cover himself he quickly calls on Scotland Yard, who send Bellairs’ detective, Inspector Littlejohn.

He’d Rather Be Dead (the title is barely significant) is not a deep mystery – Littlejohn has identified the murderer by page 130, though he then has to identify how the crime, and a subsequent murder, were planned, equipped (even in the laxer 1940s it was not easy to obtain strychnine), and alibi’d. As a novel, despite Bellairs’ obsession with the vulgar interests of the holiday-makers and their entertainers, it is more interesting in the social background of many of the characters: the bank manager who is afraid of being transferred, the town treasurer whose books did not balance once, the Medical Officer of Health who wants more hospital beds versus the local newspaper editor who is opposed to more public spending putting up the rates (remember this is before the NHS), the three squabbling clergymen of different denominations, political opponents, and more. In fact, apart from a waiter at the lunch table, all the suspects are bourgeois professionals.

It is possible, too, to start to identify some other features of Bellairs’ writing and link this book to some of his others: the victim, Sir Gideon Ware, like Alderman Harbottle in Death Stops The Frolic (1943), has only taken to the mayoralty after his business career has come to a natural end. One of the principal suspects here has, like the ‘quack’ in Murder of a Quack (also 1943), obtained his qualification lawfully but indirectly. All of this gives the book an astonishing realism – particularly to anyone who wants to not only understand English social life of the period, but also how it responded to war-time: not only is the town still a holiday destination, but two ministries have been evacuated there and taken over local establishments, while if Bellairs is to be believed anyone who could take advantage of the Black Market would do so. Access to the market, though, depends ability to pay – hence the Corporation lunch, but also the availability of spirits at the town’s upmarket cocktail bar, and the treatment of guests staying at the Grand Hotel. They receive not only accommodation but its corollary: access to the hotel’s pre-war cellars while mere holiday-makers have to make do with returning to their boarding houses at ten o’clock after the Winter Gardens close. The key, of course, which Bellairs does not bother to spell out because it is so obvious is hypocrisy.

Continuing points of interest: this review has avoided spoilers as to the murderer, but it is worth revealing that there is a final confession. More surprising is the chapter that follows it: Littlejohn’s wife reads the confession and comments on it, changing what could be read as a melodramatic whine into something psychologically deeper.

I have become a Bellairs fan. This is another of the very rare early Bellairs mysteries, finally available again. I read He’d Rather Be Dead twice before writing this review, and I am glad that I did.

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