Source: Review Copy (British Library)
This is my second Bude review for the blog, the first one occurring in January when I reviewed the British Library reprint of Death on the Riviera (1952), a later Bude book, which I enjoyed more than some of his earlier mysteries. This time round I was interested to return to his earlier work and see at what point his writing came into its’ own. This story has a closed set of suspects, as delineated by the geographical location, a residential square containing 10 houses. To begin with Bude sets the place up as a quiet idyll. Yet within a page or so he rapidly smashes this notion with reality and the everyday. With lines such as this:
‘The general effect is of a quiet residential backwater in which old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed by the rush and clatter of a generation which has left them nothing but the memories of a past epoch,’
one might expect the setting to be reminiscent of Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead. Yet despite this square containing titled characters (Sir Wilfred and Lady Eleanor Whitcomb), a reverend and his sister (Reverend Cyril Matthews and Annie Matthews), a traditional appearing doctor (Doctor Pratt) and a trio of spinsters (Miss Boon, Miss Nancy and Emmeline Watt), this place is not quite so St Mary Mead like and has a more modern feel at times. There is a retired stock broker named Edward Buller and rakish Captain Cotton, who seems to be spending beyond his means and also manages to seduce Isobel West, the wife of another of the square’s residents, Arthur West, and ultimately she does leave Arthur. His financial difficulties force him to put his house up for sale and to move to cheaper quarters. Added to which there is a rumour going round that Buller deliberately gave West duff information to make a profit for himself. Though before Arthur moves he makes one final mark on the place, having an elm tree cut down, to the consternation of quite a few of residents and this is an event which comes back to haunt him.
As Martin Edwards suggests in the introduction to the British Library reprint of this book, Bude gives the reader many possibilities for who the murder victim might be and there is also quite a wide selection of suspects. Death strikes at Buller’s home, yet it isn’t Buller who is dead… It’s Cotton, who has had an arrow shot into the back of his head. An unusual murder method like this will surely make it easy to find the killer as how many people could have the prerequisite skill? Quite a few actually, as it just so happens that many of the residents are members of the local archery club. West unsurprisingly heads the list of suspects, especially considering it is his empty house (Sherlock Holmes link maybe?) which is believed to have been used by the killer, though it does come apparent that more than one person had a reason to hate him. There are also some odd goings on in Cotton’s household and thousands of pounds have gone missing from his safe. Thankfully for Inspector Long who is in charge of case, Superintendent Meredith is holidaying with the crime writer Aldous Barnet, another resident of the square, and so can lend a hand.
Conflicting testimony makes this a difficult case to solve, though interesting to read about and more than one character has a shaky alibi, though it is alibis which become the hardest element of the case to solve, not least because death strikes again and the victims aren’t always human…
I definitely enjoyed the more traditional feel of this mystery and I think it works well with the police having one case to focus on, unlike in Death on the Riviera, where the police had to solve two cases, yet one case inevitably got more attention than the other. Bude creates a very successful and effective cast of characters, though I think Aldous is underused in the story. As in Death on the Riviera, humour gently pervades the dialogue in the story and for the main part the police investigation, although thorough, was written in an interesting way. The only problem for me was the pacing of the final third, which I found quite slow. The police are fairly quick at making deductions and finding evidence though there are two moments where Meredith really is quite slow and where I think the reader will have grasped the point quicker. I guessed the “who” element of the story fairly early, but wasn’t able to completely fathom the how and in some respects I don’t think the reader is meant to solve it all by themselves. Finally something I think Bude did consistently well throughout the story was to make things not always appear as what they seem and the crimes in particular are visually deceptive.
Rating: 4/5 In terms of characters and setting and the events of the novel I enjoyed this one more than Death on the Riviera. However, it has ended up with the same score as this later book because of the pacing issue in the final third. However, for people who love howdunnits and the proving of the guilt, then this issue probably won’t exist and I think this book does showcase Bude’s skills as a writer and would be a good one for readers new to Bude to try.