Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
This is my fourth read by Bush and this is in fact Bush’s fourth Ludovic Travers novel. It’s pleasing when these unplanned coincidences occur. Murder at Fenwold is one of Bush’s country house/village mysteries and is one of three of Bush’s books which consider the passing of traditional rural living. All of this ties back into his own village childhood, which saw the disappearance of the landed squire and the arrival of urban renters.
The mystery in this book concerns the death of the owner of Fenwold Hall, Cosmo Revere. The local, incompetent officials, such as Colonel Warren, believe that Cosmo died of an unfortunate accident, his head being hit by a falling tree. Various events lead to Ludovic Travers and John Franklin being on the crime scene early on and there is much there which leads them to expect that Cosmo’s death was no accident. However rather than an overt police case Ludovic and John are hired by Cosmo’s American heir to commence a more undercover investigation, with Ludovic posing as an employer of Cosmo’s lawyers and John pretending to be Ludovic’s manservant. There are a wide range of people for these two to suspect: Captain Leeke, Cosmo’s estate agent, who is far from keen to have his accounts looked at, August Haddowe, the new vicar, Castleton, the late vicar’s playboy son, George Carter, an antiques dealer and Leila Fortresses, Cosmo’s ward and niece, who Ludovic names ‘Queen of the Vamps.’
For readers who like a lot of meat on their mystery book puzzles then I think this book has a lot to offer, as not only is there the initial death of Cosmo, but there is further death and crimes to follow, the latter of which have to be untangled from the murder side of things. Dashiell Hammett gave this book a thumbs up in his 1930 review of it and the reviewer at the time for the Spectator, wrote that ‘it is always a pleasure to read a really complicated detective story and Murder at Fenwold fully deserves a place in this category.’ Those of you who enjoy as good map or diagram in their mystery reading will equally be pleased to know that this book has a number of tree felling diagrams, which was certainly a first for me in my mystery reading.
There are a number of delightful moments with Bush’s writing style as well. For instance there is a gentle underlying comedy between Ludovic and John, when the latter is pretending to be an employee of the former, such as when they discussing their upcoming subterfuge here:
‘What about those duties of yours? Any idea how to carry on?’
Just the vaguest […] I thought of using all the common-sense I had and putting down all the howlers to your eccentricity.’
‘A perfectly good sheet-anchor!’
Gentle comedy also pops up in other areas of the book as well such as when Bush muses on the changing times at Fenwold: ‘The lofty, the spacious times of Fenwold seemed to have departed, and Royce must have felt like a verger once employed in a cathedral, who now in the same building taken over by a cinema company, still served as usher.’ However the prize for the most bizarre line has to go to this one: ‘His few teeth were stained and he had a habit of promiscuous spitting.’ Promiscuous spitting? Definitely not come across that before in print or real life thankfully.
Even though I was very tired when reading this book, I still think that pacing is an issue with this one. Events move fast at the beginning, there is no hanging around for Cosmo’s corpse, but after that the plot does slow down a lot. This fits in with how there is no overt police investigation, but again I still think the plot could have been shortened by quite a few pages and made tighter. It also doesn’t help that Ludovic and John are not quite so free with each other in discussing their developing theories. I think though that readers on their A game will piece together some of the solution, but that there will still be quite a few surprises as well.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Set at a country house