Inspector Burmann’s Black Out (1941) by Belton Cobb

Inspector Burmann wasn’t looking forward to spending time staying with his distant relative Basil Woods, but there was the issue of an aunt’s inheritance to sort out. He didn’t particularly like Basil, and he didn’t particularly like his wife either, but he wasn’t expecting her to be murdered right in front of him. But when an air-raid siren sends the inhabitants of the flats where the Woods live into the basement and Barbara Woods dies from arsenic poisoning, this is exactly what happens.

Despite the ten people in the basement, it seems that opportunities to deliver the poison were limited to only a few individuals. Superintendent Sinclair of the local CID has one main suspect however – for if Basil was found guilty of killing his wife, then who should come into a juicy inheritance? Burmann finds himself reluctantly investigating the crime, because if he can’t find the murderer, it’s more than likely that it’s his head on the block…

My second read from my recent visit to the Bodleian Library and it’s a continuation of my weird obsession with Belton Cobb. Weird is probably the right word, as Cobb is not a great author. He’s an interesting one, certainly, but definitely not great. He has a fairly standard formula, at least in the Burmann books, where there is a closed circle of suspects – and thus far those circles have been rigidly closed – and through spotting the one key flaw in the whole picture, he gets his man. Or woman. It’s all amiable enough as Burmann circles the suspects, sharing his theories and the flaws therein with the reader as he goes along, until he spots the thing that gives the murderer away.

This one starts off with an odd introduction, namely this:

It’s possible that the change in circumstances – presumably hiding in the basement instead of an air-raid shelter in the garden – is one of the things that caused Cobb to take a break until the war was over, his next book being Double Detection in 1945. It’s also worth noting that it’s been a couple of books since Burmann last appeared (in Inspector Burmann’s Busiest Day) and his behaviour here is a bit odd. Perhaps Cobb was beginning to tire of him? When we next see him, he gains Sergeant Ross as a co-star for two books and then vanishes again for a while as Cobb tries unsuccessfully to get people to catch on to Superintendent Manning.

Here, Burmann is acting a bit oddly at the beginning. He doesn’t want anyone knowing he’s a policeman and is determined to keep his head down rather than get involved in the investigation. It’s only really when Sinclair decides that Burmann is the chief suspect that he decides to put his brain into gear. That seems to take an absolute age, as you could make a case that the “Black Out” of the title refers to Burmann seemingly being unable to focus on the case.

This one, to be honest, is disappointing. It’s never clear why Sinclair lets Burmann in on all the developments of the case when he genuinely thinks he’s the murderer, apart from us to follow the investigation. There’s also the more pressing problem is that the mystery just isn’t that interesting. There are ten people stuck in the basement when the murder happens and, including Burmann, exactly three of them are suspects. Maybe one or two others come under the magnifying glass briefly, but this is underlined at one point near the end of the tale when Burmann speaks to one of them, realising that he hadn’t seen her since the basement. The truth of the case… I won’t go into spoilers, but it just isn’t that interesting. Maybe it would have worked better in a short story.

Oh, for anyone following Burmann’s love life, at this point he is still going out with his girlfriend from No Alibi, who was a deeply annoying character in that book. She vanished thereafter, but here helps to strengthen his motive, as she is described as being unwilling to marry him until he is getting more money that he would get as a policeman. What a charmer!

So, nowhere near the best that Cobb gets and something of a disappointment.

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