Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
This is a rare occasion where I actually manage to read a Christmas mystery in December, as very often I end up reading them much earlier in the year and looking at this month’s reading I seem to have read quite a few set either in June or July. It is equally fitting that Christopher Bush wrote a Christmas novel as his middle name was Christmas. Bush was born in 1885 and died 1973. He served in both World Wars and was a school master to begin with, but after 5 years of writing his first crime novel he became a full time writer in 1931. There are 63 Ludovic Travers novels in total. Bush seems to have had quite a humorous turn of mind as indicated by his dedication to the book: ‘to some other men’s wives; in other words my sisters.’ According to one of his editors in the 1960s he had a steady cohort of fans throughout his career, but his work soon became scarce after his death. Unlike the more middle or upper class upbringings and lifestyles of fellow Detection Club members, Bush had humbler origins. He also seems to have had a fairly chequered love life; having an unacknowledged illegitimate child and abandoning his wife when enlisting during WW1, signing up as a single man. Perhaps that is why he did not marry his eventual long term partner Florence Marjorie Barclay.
The mystery takes place at a snowbound country house called Little Levington Hall, where Martin Braishe is holding a house party, at which there will be a fancy dress ball. The guests are mixture of types, a doctor and his wife, a feisty stage actress and her stage producer, her sister (who she does not get on with) and her novelist husband. Ludovic Travers, our amateur sleuth, and his friend John Franklin, (a partner of an enquiry agency), are also part of the group. Of course after the ball odd and increasing sinister events take place: the lights and phone line are cut, a canister of Braishe’s new poisonous gas has been stolen, amongst a number of other items and the morning after brings the discovery of not one dead body, but two! There is also the appearance of an unplanned guest, a schoolmaster going by the name of Crashaw, who comes with the tale that his car has become stuck in a drift of snow. But is this the truth? Bush then throws in a suspicious Swiss servant, bedroom changes, an uncompleted manuscript and more murder to muddy the investigative waters even further.
Despite the fact I have had to read this in a disjointed fashion due to Christmas festivities, I really enjoyed this book. I was impressed with the complexity of the mystery, the unusual modes of death involved and how Bush simply explains it. A trap some writers fall into when devising very complex crimes is that the solving of them and the explaining of them become rather dry and monotonous. Thankfully this is a pitfall Bush avoids. The beginning of the story is very well done. Bush does not go for the conventional country house mystery opening where each character is introduced as they arrived to the house in question. Instead Bush has the writer of the case ask Ludovic to tell him what the highlights/key elements of the case were. These come under lettered sections, A-D, mirroring the phrase of Ludovic knowing the A-Z of the case. These elements are tantalisingly incomplete and episodic. We are promised that we will not be taken up the garden path but all the same the reader is keyed up to high alert for any such thing happening. One potential area for this is the cryptic riddle at the end of this section, which is a Biblical allusion. I picked up on this allusion straight and in a way I did have some insight into the murders to come, yet the case is not so simply solved and I love how Bush plays around with the inferences to be made by this specific allusion. There is also a hugely enjoyable moment where Ludovic has the suspects come up with their own ending for one of the victim’s unfinished manuscripts, a task which I think Hercule Poirot would approve of given the psychological insights it gives. An all-round positive of this book is Bush’s writing style, which often has lovely turns of phrase, such as this one, which precedes the reader finding out about the various house guests: ‘In order to arrive at something like the truth, therefore, the best thing to do seems to be to use the available keyholes or to maintain a precarious hold on the luggage grids of a mixed assortment of cars.’ It almost feels cinematic in a way. I think my only niggle with this book was that the ending could have been tightened up, as I felt it dragged a little, in contrast to the much pacier opening. However overall this is a great festive read, with many heaps of snow and corpses to make it a wonderful Christmas mystery.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Holiday Decoration