Source: Review Copy
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Body of water
John Bude was the pseudonym for Ernest Carpenter Elmore and prior to this reivew, I have read a few Bude novels via the British Library reprints (The Cornish Coast Murder (1935), The Lake District Murder (1935) and The Sussex Downs Murder (1936)), but this is the first read by Bude where the novel is set outside the UK and also interestingly it is from much later in his writing career.
Death on the Riviera (1952) opens well with Bill Dillon who has just arrived at Dunkirk one very early and very cold morning, waiting for the customs officials to let him continue his trip. The events of WW2 are touched upon briefly with Bill reminiscing over his own experiences such as the sense of a loss of individuality for example. Moreover, he looks to the surrounding area and sees that it too hasn’t fully recovered:
‘Presumably there had been roads between the rubble heaps and undoubtedly before the holocaust, they’d led somewhere. But now there was nothing but a maze of treacherous, pot-holed tracks meandering aimlessly between a network of railway-lines and flattened buildings.’
This is also an example of how this book in contrast to the earlier novels has more of an emotional level to it in comparison, as I feel in the earlier books the focus on the puzzle, the mystery, meant the novels tended to emotionally flat line. Interestingly in this opening sequence we also told that Bill is glad one item in his luggage was not noticed. What item is that we wonder?
The narrative then switches to DI Meredith of CID and Sergeant Strang who are also
heading to the Riviera like Bill, as they have been asked to get involved in a French case concerning counterfeit notes, as the forger is believed to be an Englishman, known as Tommy ‘Chalky’ Cobbett. Another narrative switch occurs and this time we are at the residence of Nesta Hedderwick, called the Villa Paloma. She is a widow who is failing miserably at losing weight, is snappy and rude to her companion Miss Pilly, jealous of her slimmer niece Dilys Westmascott and is an easy target for young men who are keen to scrounge and sponge money off others. This is attested to by the other inhabitants of the villa such as Tony Shenton who recently has been going off for suspiciously early morning drives and Paul Latour, a man posing as an artist, but who we are quickly told is actually buying his paintings off someone else (who unfortunately for modern readers may come across as an unkind but minor allusion to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but perhaps I am reading too much into this). The final inhabitant is a young woman called Kitty, who was invited by Tony. The moral atmosphere of the villa is rather poor unsurprisingly but on the other hand Bude doesn’t make it particularly easy to be sympathetic to Nesta either.
For many of the characters the Riviera is a place to reinvent yourself, for good or bad purposes and this even stretches to Sergeant Strang, who ends up in the most frightful of knots trying to remain incognito when he begins to fall in love with Dilys. This element of the plot works well as it doesn’t interfere with the crime solving aspect of the story and interjects a good dose of humour into the novel. Moreover, I think the narrative style is better in this novel, as opposed to Bude’s earlier work as the narrative doesn’t just focus on DI Meredith, but cuts to different groups of characters, which as the story progresses become more interlinked and entangled. This is definitely the case with Bill, whose real reason for going to the Riviera is revealed to the reader and concerns a love triangle which is simultaneously modern and old fashioned.
For the crime reader who needs a body by the end of the first chapter, this book would disappoint, as the bodies don’t start appearing and disappearing for that matter until the final third of the book, with the previous part of the story focusing on solving the counterfeiting racket. However, I didn’t mind this as I saw the novel like a bottle of champagne in that the first two thirds of the book were working up to the moment where the cork is popped or in this case the bodies drop. Moreover, the investigation into the counterfeiting racket which involves Meredith and Strang, but also French police officials such as Inspector Blampignon, is interestingly written and gives credit to Bude, as I imagine if Freeman Wills Crofts had written it, I probably would have died of boredom. Humour is also present in this element of the book in the interactions of Meredith and Blampignon, such as when the latter thinks the word ‘hunch’ means the same as ‘hutch’ and he wonders why Meredith is talking about rabbits.
The solutions to all the various mysteries are unusual in their operandi and twists are revealed, which are surprising but believable. The guilty parties to varying degrees may be easy to spot, but the methods they employ are definitely outside of the ordinary. I am still in two minds as to whether or not I think the book is top heavy, in that the counterfeiting side of things gets more text space, as on the other hand I think through this investigation all the characters are introduced and developed, so when further mysteries occur, the subsequent investigations don’t necessarily need to be as long. However, part of me wonders whether the various mysteries could have been interlinked further, which is why I perhaps gave this book a slightly lower score. Overall though I think this is the strongest and most entertaining Bude novel I have read out of the British Library reprints (as far as my memory serves), because of its strong characterisation, character development and narrative style, which includes humorous moments.