Death Stops The Frolic

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

Death Stops The Frolic
Arora Books
RRP: £8.99
Released: March 19 2020

George Bellairs started publishing during the Second World War and went on until the mid-1970s. Some of his mysteries have appeared under the aegis of the British Library Crime Classics but far more – though with less publicity – have appeared under lesser-known publisher’s imprints as print-on-demand ‘A-sized’ paperbacks. As his backlist is not appearing chronologically I would guess that the order is partly dependent on finding original copies to transcribe.

That would explain why Death Stops The Frolic (originally published as Turmoil In Zion), one of Bellairs first books, has been so late in appearing – copies of his war-time books are almost impossible to find, and Death Stops The Frolic is set both in the war (October 1941) and was published during the war (1943).

The ‘Zion’ of the title is a non-conformist chapel, the largest religious body in a town on the East Midlands/East Anglia border, where the dominant factory owner was also the dominant religious figure. Hence anyone who wanted to get on in business had to get on with the chapel, and anyone who was not in the business (Pogsley’s Snugsleep Blankets) who wanted to get on in the town had to get in with the chapel. That was the case with Alderman Harbottle, deacon of the chapel, and retired grocery chain owner. Now in his retirement he spends his time interfering in local government and waiting for his one opportunity each year to shine: the annual celebration of the chapel foundation. After a service and a high tea there will be high jinks, or as high as being low-church and non-conformist allows: the Alderman will lead the congregation in a conga line in and around the chapel, while everybody sings ‘The grand old Duke of York’. Except this time someone has opened a trapdoor in the balcony, and the Alderman being at the front of the line, has fallen through. Not trusting that the fall would kill him, before anyone can reach him, the Alderman has been stabbed with a bread knife. There was a lot of high tea – investigations will show there were lots of bread knives. The Chief Constable in a rare exception to the rule of classic detective stories decides not to call in Scotland Yard but trusts to his own force and instructs Inspector Nankivell to take charge.

Death Stops The Frolic, more than Bellairs’ later stories, is a police procedural: this is how Nankivell and his team investigate the murder. How they lock down the chapel and identify everyone present, how they search Harbottle’s home overlooking the town in search of clues to enemies, how they find he was more of an old goat than anyone realised. In turn it is also a novel of social investigation – the struggles of the clergyman to hold his social place on a pitiful stipend, the good name of a young woman that is being unnecessarily tarnished, the struggles needed to get a family member the position of organist in the chapel, even the doubts of a legal alien about his position during war time – all of these will affect the willingness of witnesses to come forward. In the background, meanwhile, is the war. It is the presence of a searchlight battery nearby that will provide Nankivell with his breakthrough, and it will be the Home Guard that end it all, but Bellairs’ general point is that life is very much going on as before. That does not mean that all is lightness – one of his themes is cruelty to children. The murderer will kill a child who has seen too much, but whose protests have been ignored, while Nankivell realises that the head teacher of the council school is a sadist who repeatedly manages to escape the law.

Jim Kelly’s The Great Darkness (2018) had the same war-time motive as Death Stops The Frolic: reading the modern novel with that theme reveals how difficult it can be to recreate the times exactly for a modern author. Meanwhile, at Shots we have reviewed the British Library Crime Classics reprints of George Bellairs with approval. Here is another of his titles to look out for.

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