Death With A Difference (1960) by Belton Cobb

Police Constable Bryan Armitage is an “Aid to CID”. After a lucky arrest in London, he has garnered the opportunity to apply to the plain clothes detective division, but while he works on that, he patrols the streets with his more senior, but less talented, colleague, PC George Lett. Six hundred such Aids patrol the streets of London, but none will have a more interesting evening that Bryan and George. On the trail of the escaped convict Tim Hawkins, they find evidence of a break-in, a flat in Hawkins’ usual patch. And on the floor, there is blood. Lots of blood.

Bryan sees an opportunity for advancement by attempting to impress Inspector Cheviot Burmann in investigating the case, but even when the likely body is found, things just seem to be wrong. Why lure the victim to the flat, kill them there and then remove the body? Is Hawkins responsible? Is it the owner of the flat? The suspicious neighbour? The suspicious neighbour’s fancy-woman? Or the victim’s sister? Unfortunately, it seems, they all seem to have iron-clad alibis…

1960 was when I was told that Belton Cobb went off the boil. I’m still a little divided on Cobb. I don’t think he’s the next Brian Flynn, so to speak, but there is a lot to like in his writing. I’ve mentioned before how he seems to operate a police squad of characters – here Bryan is the narrator and the lead, although Burmann is the one doing the sleuthing (unlike Early Morning Poison where Superintendent Manning let his underling do everything). Actually Bryan makes a few discoveries along the way, such as finding the dead body, and credit to Cobb for his character work that as a reader I felt pleased for dear old Bryan. Yes, he does have a weird habit in his narrative of referring to Burmann as “Cheviot” – they’re not close friends, so this is a weird way of referring to his distant superior. Cobb does try and justify it, along with rationale with Bryan writing up the case (as he’s an aspiring writer) but he didn’t convince me.

The narrative is really enjoyable. There’s some nice reflections from an outsider on Burmann’s quirks, such as having conversations with himself while trying to put two and two together, and there’s some nice comedy moments with Bryan trying to stay on Burmann’s good side and Burmann displaying a dry sense of humour masking his clear respect for Bryan’s efforts.

As for the mystery, it’s engrossing, but the ending falls a little flat, with perhaps too much pulled out of thin air. While by the end, we know who the murderer is, even Burmann admits that conviction is unlikely, although the last line gives us some hope. It is all a bit railway-timetabley, with working out where everyone was and when and how long it would take to get from A to B to C and so on. There’s also maybe one or two many coincidences on show as well.

But to be fair, what I’m after at the moment are readable, enjoyable mysteries, not exercises in logical deduction that rely on me making notes as I go along, and this is an enjoyable tale. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve stockpiled a few of his books, and next time I need an easy read, I’ll certainly be heading back to that section of my bookshelf.

Oh, and two other things. One, no, I don’t know how killing someone and moving the body makes it a “Death With A Difference” and two, isn’t that a rubbish cover?

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