Home Guard Mystery (1942) by Belton Cobb

“It would not be safe for Fifth Columnists and Spies to assume, because only rifles and bayonets are mentioned here, that the Home Guard does not possess any other weapons. The author has purposely been discreet about such details.”

Volunteer Gregory Bairstowe is doing what every man of the village who has not been called up is doing – defending his company as part of the Home Guard. Night-time patrols are essential, and this is proved when two German paratroopers are captured. A successful defence of the borders, it seems, except that in the morning, it becomes apparent that Sergeant Cunningham, the commanding officer, has disappeared.

The assumption is that Cunningham has disappeared to be with his lover, but given that she is still in the locale, Bairstowe’s curiosity gets the better of him. Convinced that the gunshot heard in the night was Cunningham’s murder, he sets out to find the truth. But when the only people who were out that night were the rest of the Home Guard, could there really be a murderer in their ranks?

After the horror that was The Horrible Man In Heron’s Wood, I thought I’d head back to some of Belton Cobb’s earlier work. This was his tenth mystery novel, published at the height of the second World War, hence the warning in the foreword that I’ve included above. After this, and Inspector Burmann’s Blackout, Cobb didn’t resume writing until the end of the conflict, but here (and given the title, presumably the other book) he used the conflict as his backdrop. I ran a series of reviews earlier this year (or was it last year? – I forget) with the tagline #DoMentionTheWar, where authors actively included the current situation in books written when the outcome of the conflict was far from known.

This doesn’t come across as a propaganda piece. Yes, it does portray the non-murdering members of the Home Guard in a good light, as solid individuals fighting the good fight, but that’s hardly a surprise. There is a positive assumption that the war will be won coming from the characters, but it’s not a flag-waving tup-thumping exercise.

The entire tale is told from Bairstowe, a oldish individual who reluctantly becomes more and more engrossed in finding the truth. There is no police investigation – note, this is not an Inspector Burmann mystery – as there isn’t a body for a good while, and once Bairstowe finds it, he, for not desperately sensible or clear reasons, keeps quiet about it. And just when he is about to go to the police, a time-bomb falls on it, so, again for unclear reasons, he figures without proof of the body’s existence, he can’t tell anyone about it.

So, the reasons for the amateur detective giving it a go are vague at best, but it’s an entertaining investigation, partly because Bairstowe is pretty crap at the investigating part. More than once, he tries to get information out of someone subtly, only to be immediately challenged about why he is interrogating the suspect about the missing Sergeant.

The mystery is clued – although the motive isn’t – although it’s a pretty obscure clue, but the overall picture is well-hidden. This is definitely another worthwhile and fun read from Cobb, and I am delighted to be unchallenged on this as it’s the only review of this on the internet at time of writing – Curtis Evans does mention it in one of his posts so he might be the other person who’s read it. If you want to read it, well, bad luck, as there don’t seem to be any copies for it for sale on the internet. So apologies if I’ve piqued your interest there…

5 comments

  1. The early Belton Cobb books would be great candidates for reprinting. I purchased half a dozen or so a few years ago (this one included) and they are all pretty good.

    For some reason my brain always confuses this author with Milward Kennedy, another author whose books have become harder to find!

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      • Yes, Corpse in Cold Storage was not that great. I rated Sic transit Gloria the same (3/5) I enjoyed The Murderer of Sleep, Half-mast Murder, and Who was Old Willy? Am about to start Poison in the Parish.

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  2. It might be interesting to compare this with John Rhode’s Night Exercise (aka Dead Of The Night), which also concerns the Home Guard and a mysterious disappearance, and also lacks the author’s usual sleuth.

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