Here we have two really interesting and enjoyable 1940s crime novels by George Bellairs. I'd certainly never heard of him and you may not have either - his real name was Harold Lundell and he was a bank manager who wrote crime novels as a hobby for nearly four decades. He lived in what was then called the West Riding of Yorkshire, and that's where the first of these two novels is set. The title refers to the event that starts the story off - a body is discovered buried on the moor, and turns out to have been there for more than twenty years - but it's also a line from Handel's Messiah, which is being sung in the local church on this cold winter evening. Indeed, the local police superintendent Haworth is actually singing the tenor solos, the professional singer having failed to turn up. Listening to the magnificent singing are Inspector Littlejohn, recently arrived from London, and his wife, who's been convalescing in the village. When Haworth has a fall and injures his ankle, Littlejohn gets permission from Scotland Yard to take over investigating the case.
I have to say that this is not the most exciting of plots - Littlejohn plods on, works out quite soon who did it and then spends a good deal of time finding a way to prove it - which also happens in the second novel in this volume. But don't let that put you off. Littlejohn is an attractive character, but it's the wonderful period detail that really makes this such fun to read. From the inspector's train journey to Yorkshire in the blackout to the packed church listening to the Messiah to a wonderful set piece where two retired police inspectors, father-and son-in-law conduct an interview with Littlejohn surrounded by their beloved prize hens, the novel really conjures up those far off days where, despite the war, which doesn't really impinge in this remote country area, everything seems to have been a lot simpler.
There's also a great deal of interest in the second novel in the volume, Murder of a Quack. The quack in question, Nathaniel Wall, is actually what is referred to in the novel as a bone setter, but seems to have been what today we would call an osteopath. He also practices homeopathy, and is highly respected in the West Country village where he lives. He comes from a long line of healers, and patients come to consult him from all over the country, many turning to his practice when their conventional doctors have failed to cure them. He's much liked as well as respected, and nobody can understand why anyone would wish to murder him. Could it be something to do with the dangerous criminal who he successfully treated some years ago? The man was on the run from the police, and was easy to identify owing to his broken nose and damaged right arm, both of which Wall has managed to cure. But why would the man have wanted to kill his benefactor? And what hold did he have over Wall to persuade him to do the long and arduous work that brought about the cure? The local police are baffled, and so they send for someone from Scotland Yard to help with the enquiry - none other than Inspector Littlejohn, who arrives on the train and gets himself lodgings in the local pub, The Mortal Man. Using what his creator described as his 'sheer patience and tenacity of purpose', he needless to say works his way through the various suspects - the drunken local doctor, who hated Wall, is high on the list - and reaches the right answer.
I have another Bellairs by my bed, The Death of a Busybody, so you may be hearing about that soon. Meanwhile, thanks to the British Library Crime Classics for more enjoyable reading!