Book Review: Death in High Provence by George Bellairs
George Bellairs, Death in High Provence, Ipso Books, London, 2016. Originally published in 1957 in Great Britain by John Gifford Ltd., and in 1963 in the U.S by Penguin.
About the Author
George Bellairs is the nom de plume of Harold Blundell (1902-1982), a mystery writer born in Heywood, Lancashire, in the United Kingdom. By day he was a Manchester banker, and by night and in his spare time, he wrote mysteries and articles for magazines and newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian under the pseudonym of George Bellairs. A Francophile, he often travelled to France with his wife Gladys, where he based many of his mysteries, including Death in High Provence. He was a prolific writer, authoring over fifty books, and was often compared to the famous Belgian writer Georges Simenon. He began writing in 1941, during World War II, at his air raid warden post, when he created the hero of his mystery novels Detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn.
In this novel, Detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn is asked by none other than Spencer Lovell, the Minister of Commerce, to find out how Lovell’s brother and his wife died in a car crash on their way to Provence. Spencer Lovell suspects foul play despite the French authorities’ assertions that it was an accident. Published in 1957, the story unfolds in St. Marcellin, a small village in Provence in the après guerre, a place that has none of the appurtenances of modern life such as running water or even much electricity. On the other hand, it is a location of great natural beauty: “the ground slowly rose from the village to a chain of gently undulating modest hills, with pastures and rows of vines and olive trees. Beyond, the rising ground grew wilder, covered with juniper, myrtle, thyme and lavender, and then, in the background, the rocky bastion of the alps of High Provence.” (59)
Not only has that little village not evolved much physically over the last century, but socially it is still very much rooted in the past. A clear social stratum demarcates each person’s position according to their role in the village. At the very top stands the impoverished but still grand Marquis de St. Marcellin, very much the feudal lord, to whom everyone is loyal and ready to defend, even if that means lying for him. Then there is the mayor of St. Marcellin, Anselme Savini, a pompous little man, better educated than the rest but very much indebted to the Marquis for his position and social standing in the village. The curé or Catholic parish priest, who has never made it to bishop, resides unhappily in the village and is bound by the secrecy of confession that is part of his clerical vows. Just as important is the village doctor, Hilaire Mengali, who knows everyone’s secrets but is bound by his Hippocratic oath to assist those who need his ministrations but not to reveal what ails them. The ubiquitous butler is de rigueur in a mystery, with a marquis living in a crumbling chateau. So Claudius is de St. Marcellin’s man, who listens behind doors and who, when threatened with jail by the French police, is willing to reveal the secret conversations he has overheard. And beyond these men are several others in the village that include an innkeeper and her brother, the grocer and the grocer’s wife, a mechanic, the twin brothers who are the only bakers in the village, the policeman, the postman as well as various farmers and others.
The story evolves as Inspector Littlejohn has to sort out the lies and inconsistencies that are told to him to uncover the truth. True to form, the story is an old-fashioned one that includes duels, feudal loyalty, honor codes and love stories that unfold upstairs and downstairs. It is a joy to immerse oneself in a book that takes you back to a time when life in Provence was simpler, nature was unspoiled, and love, honor and chivalry prevailed.
Buy the Book
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