On separate occasions, two young women are murdered while walking home at night near the town of Carleton Unthank, both stabbed in precisely the same way. Residents becomes alarmed at the idea of a maniac stalker; local police have no leads or clues. And, so, Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard, assisted by Sergeant Cromwell, is called in to take over the case (the London detectives, like the local police, rarely use first names).
Two more murders follow, and they appear to be by the same killer. One is a man, stabbed in his home. He had moved to England from Australia some years before and had the reputation of being something of a ladies’ man. The second is one his ladies, the owner of the local riding school. But these seem different than the first two. Could there be two different killers using the same method of murder?
Death in the Fearful Night by George Bellairs was first published in 1960, and it’s a classic British police whodunit. Littlejohn and Cromwell are no Holmes and Watkins; Littlejohn has no great flashes of insight based on a few odd clues. He gets the job done by plodding police work, talking to people, interviewing witnesses, paying attention to what people say and how they behave. He’s not above a bit of mild bullying and theatrics, if that’s what it takes to catch a killer (or killers).
George Bellairs is a pseudonym of British author Harold Blundell (1902-1982), who was first a banker and philanthropist before turning his hand to writing mystery stories. He wrote more than 50 Inspector Littlejohn mysteries, and also wrote four other books under the pseudonym of Hilary Langdon. He also wrote comedy for radio and was a newspaper columnist and freelance writer. His Littlejohn mysteries, many set outside London, provide a perceptive look at small towns and minor cities.
Death in the Fearful Night manages to keep the reader guessing to the end. The pleasure in reading comes as much from the unmasking of the killer as it does how Littlejohn goes about solving the case.
Top photograph by Tevin Trinh via Unsplash. Used with permission.