I can’t complain about any slow build ups to the murder in Surfeit of Suspects: it literally opens with a bang. The opening describes an explosion which destroys an office building and kills three people. The three victims are all directors of a small joinery company, all on the premises well after closing time for some unknown reason. The remaining two directors deny that it was a director’s meeting, as they were not present. So, apart from immediate action, we also know pretty quickly that there’s something just a little suspicious about the joinery company.
After this dramatic opening, I was expecting non-stop action to follow. However, this just doesn’t happen. I was surprised to find that the story becomes rather slow and plodding for some time. Even a few more deaths (including another director) doesn’t really pick the action up much, until we near the end and things start to happen.
The book’s title led me to believe that each chapter would be packed with suspects, with the police baffled as to which one out of this ‘surfeit’ would be the actual murderer. Again, this isn’t the case early on. The police don’t seem to have any real leads and frankly, don’t seem to do much more than listen to gossip. I even checked my dictionary, in case my understanding of the word ‘surfeit’ was wrong. It wasn’t. But if you are patient and continue to read, you are rewarded with another uptick in the action and suddenly there really is a surfeit of suspects, all behaving very suspiciously.
Although there isn’t a lot of action early on in this book, what it does have is a great feeling of the world in which it is set. The setting of this book is the fictional town of Evingden, a built around an existing village, where the existing population of around 3,000 is suddenly swamped by a development that houses another 15,000 people. This is an important part of life in post-war Britain. Areas that were once small, peaceful villages were suddenly surrounded by tacky housing estates replacing the countryside. Bellairs captures the changing times in Britain in the 1960s, and the tensions between the original inhabitants of the village and the newcomers. For example, Bellairs contrasts the fortunes of two branches of a bank: the original in the old town is a rundown building with only a few staff remaining and a manager struggling to keep the branch he has worked in all his life open, as his customers all leave: and the modern branch in the new town with an ambitious young manager who has moved from branch to branch in the company with various promotions until he is awarded with stewardship of the new branch, filled with staff and customers and a growing business. The new manager acknowledges that he started in the old branch and learned a lot of his work from the old manager, but he regards the old manager as a failure for not changing with the times.
The new developments turn out to be central to the plot. Firstly, the police are surprised to learn that the joinery company is failing financially, as the rapid developments in the town should be providing them with steady work. But the small company has outdated equipment and has been unable to compete with larger companies offering prepared joinery in bulk. It had been facing financial ruin before the population explosion. The sole surviving director has no experience with running the company and seems overwhelmed by the situation in which he finds himself. The resulting tensions between the various directors and their staff and their suppliers give the police some promising leads in their investigations.
As the police dig deeper in the affairs of the company and consult with the fraud squad, they gradually piece together a web of fraud and corruption, with tendrils linking a local alderman, a bank manager and several of the directors. Ultimately they uncover, out of what turns out – after all – to be a surfeit of suspects, just who it was that set off that explosion at the opening and why they did it.
Bellairs’s plot seems very believable, drawing on his own background knowledge of banking and financial dealings. There may not be a lot of action for most of the book, but Bellairs tells his story well and keeps his reader interested in what is happening. The atmosphere he creates around the changing way of life for people in post-war Britain is what I feel to be the strength of this book. But the mystery is still a clever one, once we eventually understand what has been happening.