Book Review: The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs (1961)

George Bellairs was the pen name of Harold Blundell (1902-1985), a British crime fiction author. He wrote more than 50 detective novels and was one of the most famous crime writers of the 20th century.

His most famous creation is Inspector Tom Littlejohn, a detective who appeared in over 40 of Bellairs’ novels. Set in small towns and villages throughout England, Bellairs’ books are known for their intricate plotting, clever clues, and authentic depictions of police work.

Some of his most famous books include Death in the Night Watches, The Dead Shall Be Raised, Death of a Busybody, and The Body in the Dumb River. Bellairs’ novels have been translated into several languages and adapted for television and radio.

When a man’s body is found stabbed by the flooded Dumb River, Inspector Littlejohn is called to see the man’s identity and killer. He is swiftly identified as James Teasdale, a down-and-out arts and crafts store owner bullied by his wife and her domineering father. However, James Teasdale found respite from his domestic woes by having a double life.

Unable to provide for his wife and daughters, James Teasdale begins a deception. He tells his proud wife he is a commercial traveler and spends the week selling goods. He sends home a lot of money weekly and spends the weekend with his family. However, James Teasdale is not a commercial traveler but works as the owner of a hoopla stall (A ring toss stand) for a traveling fair. He begins living under an assumed name with another woman, and they are happy. Every weekend he leaves the stall in her charge and returns to his snobbish and uppity family.

When his body is found, Teasdale’s fellow fairground workers are shocked and appalled at his heinous murder. When the same news is delivered to his wife- she is angry- but only because now she will have to mind the failing store and look after the family herself. Over the next few days, Teasdale’s inlaws gather to prepare his funeral Inspector Littlejohn notices the absence of mourning from his family and their general dislike for him. He is regarded as an abject failure between his failed business, inability to produce male heirs, and lack of upward social mobility.

With his death, his deception is uncovered by his father in laws manservant; many suspects would like to see James Teasdale dead. His proud and vitriolic father-in-law, his entitled wife, and his lover. Inspector Littlejohn and his Sergeant Robert Cromwell soon find themselves embroiled in a family drama and soon become suspicious that they know who killed James Teasdale. When the manservant who discovered James Teasdale’s double life disappears- Inspector Littlejohn and Sergeant Sergeant Robert Cromwell must unravel the two mysteries.

This is my first foray into George Bellairs’ work, and I found his writing style light-hearted and easy to read. The 35th novel in a long-running series often feels bloated with the personal machinations of the detectives and their personal foibles. Still, this book was mercifully light on Inspector Littlejohn’s backstory. You can read this mystery without having read any of the others because it is primarily a police procedural- your going along with the detectives and working the case, meeting characters, and entering a new world with each book.

It is this entering into a totally natural world that Bellairs shines. He describes the scenery so accurately that you are transported into the setting. Practical and witty dialogue help sell the immersion, exceptionally his knack for the difference in class and tone between the two worlds that James Teasdale occupies.

The suspects in the book and the world Teasdale is fleeing are wholly unlikable, which is supposed to make the reader sympathize with his choice to create a second life for himself. Still, it doesn’t wash with me, James Teasdale, cowed by his inlaws and wife, can divorce his wife and start over again; deception is unnecessary. I think it might go to prove that there is a kernel of truth in the assessment that he is weak-willed, but I’m not sure. James Teasdale mourned little; a bigamist and cheater does little to inspire empathy in my heart. Should he have been murdered for his infidelity and lies- no, but he was playing a dangerous deception.

The murder was not as brutal to solve as I wished. Bellairs spends a lot of time questioning the family repeatedly, but the temperaments of the characters so clearly define gives away the killer before they are unmasked. That’s not to imply the book wasn’t enjoyable; it was delightful and easy to get lost in- the mystery for me just wasn’t groundbreaking.

The Body in the Dumb River is a good solid mystery. Dependable and untaxing- great for a quick read or to read while traveling. I am interested in reading more of Bellairs works in the future. Have you read any of his books? You can pick up a copy of The Body in the Dumb River with a stellar introduction by Martin Edwards from Amazon here. Leave your thoughts on The Body in the Dumb River in the comments below.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs (1961)

  1. I read this a while ago and had the same reaction, that it was a pretty good solid mystery. I recently read another of his and felt the same. I know he has many admirers and I’ll probably try another at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

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