Book Review: The Case of the Famished Parson by George Bellairs (1949)

Published in 1949, The Case of the Famished Parson is the thirteenth installment in the Thomas Littlejohn series written by George Bellairs.

The story begins with Inspector Littlejohn and his wife, Letty, enjoying a seaside vacation in a little out-of-the-way hotel, the Cape Mervin. Their restful getaway hardly begins when Inspector Littlejohn is called away to consult on a baffling case.

The local Bishop of Greyle has been found dead at the bottom of Bolter’s Hole; the initial assumption is that he fell over the cliffs, but when they study the placement of his head wound, the only reasonable explanation is murder. Inspector Littlejohn and his colleagues are equally baffled by the Bishop’s emaciated appearance, even though he lives a comfortable life.

Inspector Littlejohn retraces the Bishop’s movements to the same seaside hotel that he and Letty are staying at and begins questioning the patrons about the Bishop. An already muddled case is further complicated by another mysterious incident at the hotel: the shoes of a wealthy American magnate were used by someone after being shined by the night porter. Thus, the mystery is set….or is it?

I was intrigued by the case’s setup and the characters presented by George Bellairs in The Case of the Famished Parson gave. The Bishop, a spiritual fanatic, is mysteriously called away, the night porter, verbose, shifty, and comical, the wealthy, coddled magnate with his sugar baby “wife” and, of course, a more relaxed, peripheral Inspector Littlejohn. The characters and plotting are off to the races.

Inspector Littlejohn has been roped into the investigation against his will and is hastily trying to solve the case and get back to his wife. He visits the eccentric and half-crazed family whom the Bishop is estranged from. I am totally on board it they are all so vivid and grotesque: a soured love affair, a mad mother, other family members trying to carry on- and there is a suggestion that the Bishop’s strange behavior and mysterious phone call are somehow connected to his dysfunctional family.

Inspector Littlejohn talks to the Bishop of Greyle’s wife, and she explains that the Bishop of Greyle is so emaciated because he is starving himself to attain spiritual enlightenment. This revelation is a bit of a letdown because it’s so…ordinary and predictable, but then Inspector Littlejohn is shot–mortally wounded– and I am re-invested in the mystery again; the Bishop’s death must be part of more considerable intrigue and how do the muddied shoes figure in?

Inspector Littlejohn survives, and then the story takes a hard turn away from all of the lovely setup about the mad parson and becomes a somewhat good mystery about smuggling.

This shift in the story is part of what I believe is George Bellairs thesis about crimes: that the crime that alerts the police is splashy and incomprehensible, but during the investigation, everything is, in fact, quite reasonable and necessary in concealing a more significant crime, usually motivated by greed, money, or family. He is the master at stripping away the glamour of a crime story and reminding the reader that a grisly murder took place, and it’s not for your entertainment, but because people want more than they have and will take what they want by any means necessary.

Bellairs take on human nature is sobering.

His books are not for everyone, he is very good at setting up an incredible story, but unlike John Dickson Carr, who principally writes to come up with ingenious solutions, Bellairs is writing to show that crimes are sad. The people who commit them are evil. Bellairs isn’t interested in protecting the illusion of cleverness or glamour for the sake of a good story. In fact, I think he’s more interested in showing how human vices lead to deadly consequences at the expense of a zany story.

The more extensive criminal smuggling network is exciting and is a good story, but it is a far cry from the fantastic set up of The Case of the Famished Parson– of which the book is named. I liked the book, I really enjoyed the characters, especially the deepening of Inspector Littlejohn, but I think this book reveals a great deal about why George Bellairs writes the stories he writes.

I also think this book also reveals why George Bellairs is as popular as, say, John Dickson Carr, who revels in the story, the puzzle, and the solution; I think Bellairs is not so enamored with the story- the answer is always the same- people like to take what isn’t theirs and people only notice when something bizarre makes them.

He is a tricky author to recommend, and your enjoyment of his works depends significantly on how much you want your mystery book to entertain you. If your chief complaint with mystery writers is that the motives never reflect “real life” then I think George Bellairs book will appeal to you. It appeals to me and I actually find his point of view refreshing.

His character work, dialogue, and descriptions of landscapes are so lyrical without being verbose. He is so gifted at portraying real-to-life people in only a few words. His books aren’t bogged down with lengthy police procedural jargon- he eschews tedious interviews for short snippets with the suspects that reveal everything about them. It’s a great introduction to police procedurals for people who don’t like the tedium of police procedures.

I liked The Case of the Famished Parson and highly recommend it; just don’t get too hung up on the fact that the book isn’t really about a “famished person” as much as muddy shoes. Although “The Case of the Muddy Shoes” doesn’t sound nearly as interesting, does it? So maybe George Bellairs does care about having a good story… Sigh, maybe my whole theory is upended in the end! I think reading more of George Bellairs’s works is the only way to get a better handle. You can buy a copy of The Case of the Famished Parson from Amazon here.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Thank you to the George Bellairs Literary Estate for gifting me an ebook of The Case of the Famished Parson.

Have you read The Case of the Famished Parson? Let me know your thoughts below.


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