A Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs (1964)

Excelsior Joinery is a company in decline in a decaying section of Evingden, Surry. When an explosion destroys the offices of the company, and kills three of it’s five directors, Scotland Yard Superintendent Littlejohn and Inspector Cromwell are brought in to investigate. 

Every line of enquiry seems to turns up a new motive. With one of the dead men having an affair with the wife of one of the surviving directors, was the motive personal? Or, with Excelsior in financial trouble could the crime have been an insurance scam? When they then uncover a land development fraud scheme and possible corruption in local government, they are left filtering through an overabundance of motives and suspects to uncover the truth.

Bellairs is excellent at setting the tone for his mysteries with his descriptions of surroundings and characters, and this story is another great example. Bellairs takes advantage of a social aspect of life in postwar Britain, overcrowding and a growing housing problem. To alleviate these issues, Parliament passed Acts in 1946 and 1952 providing for the development of “new towns”. New towns were sometimes build around, or tacked onto, existing small towns or villages, changing their culture and often moving their centers from the old high streets to new developments. This often left the older areas to lie fallow, sometimes leading to tension between the two. Bellairs develops the tension of the “old’ versus the “new” most notably through his portrayal of the local bank. In the old part of town there is the old bank branch and tired manager struggling to keep going, and in the new town, the new modern branch with its ambitious young manager. 

With such a larger cast of suspects it is difficult to develop them all thoroughly. Bellairs does establish several as personalities, most notably Bella Hoop, the histrionic cheating wife, bank manager George Roper, Alderman Vintner. But for me, it was the peripheral characters and the miniature portraits that Bellairs created of them are very striking. 

My name’s Wood. Augustus Wood, but they call me Joe, said the keeper of the gate…’ ‘He wore an old suit a size too large for him which gave him. a wilting appearance. His cloth cap might have been part of his head for he never moved it. In place of his left hand he had a hook, with which he manipulated his tea-things with great skill. Obviously another casualty of the woodwork machinery trade who had been given a lighter job after his accident. He must have been past sixty and, in spite of his ill-lighted and confined job, had managed to keep a chubby cheerful countenance.”

The mystery aspect of the story is not as strong, but still not lacking. This is a police procedural with, as previously stated, a number of suspects and variety of motives. Bellairs does well to create a plot that is complex yet not convoluted. Each of the suspects makes a credible murderer, and it is not until well into the story that the clues come together to reveal the actual villain. 

Another enjoyable read from Bellairs. I definitely recommend that you give it a try.

My Judgement – 4/5

Prior Rulings – Rehka @ The Book Decoder, Kate @ crossexaminingcrime, Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy

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