Ludovic Travers is on holiday, staying at the Haven hotel at Sandbeach. Nothing like a nice relaxing seaside vacation, right? Well no one will be surprised that Ludovic’s trip ends up being the complete opposite. Things begin in a small way with Ludovic’s curiosity being piqued by an ex-commando who may be dealing in black market goods and distributing them to the local posh hotels. Then there’s a writer, whose face Ludovic thinks he has seen before and there’s another hotel guest posing as an ex-cleric, yet whose past may have been more colourful. All of these intrigues bubble along contentedly until death strikes, a drowning in fact. Yet was it an accident or a murder? It is at this juncture that Superintendent George Wharton of Scotland Yard joins the scene, and he needn’t be worried that he has missed out on all the action, as violence and mystery continue to unfold, to the extent that even Ludovic’s own life is in danger.
This is one of those books which is a little frustrating, in that it has a number of really good components, yet they’re not used in a way that realises their full potential. The first of these components is the initial death by drowning, which could be an unfortunate accident or an incredibly subtle murder. The mechanisms involved in this death are top notch, but the audacity of the scheme is undermined by the investigation Ludovic and George undertake. Maybe it’s because they’re on holiday and their minds are not working at their best, but the pair of them make heavy weather of the case and in some ways make the job even harder than it has to be. In particular I am at a loss as to why these two keep each other and others in the dark as to what they have uncovered. Ludovic is the worst of the two of them barely giving George any info on the first death when he arrives, thinking George would prefer to find out about it by himself. I didn’t really follow Ludovic’s logic on this one, but I did come to the conclusion that this prevarication elongates the tale and the second half of the book is decidedly dragged out, in conjunction with the stripping down in the number of characters involved. Consequently, the killer does not become much of a surprise for the reader as Bush recourses to having suspects info dump at in the final third of the story.
Nevertheless, I believe this was intended to be a fair play mystery, which Bush is at great pains to emphasise in the prologue:
‘But just a final word of warning. You’ll be troubled by no more descriptions—no beauties of nature or exquisite sunsets. Conversations there will be, but you’ll make a mistake if you take them for aimless chatter. From now on there’ll be never a word of padding. The least bit of what seems chit-chat will probably contain a clue, and everything will have its real significance.’
And the annoying thing is, is that with some rewriting it could have been a brilliant one, especially in combination with the crime’s more outré motivation.
However, one thing you can rely on with Bush is his character work and the cast of hotel guests is very well-drawn and Bush uses character types very effectively as vehicles for red herrings to wrong foot the reader. Moreover, it was enjoyable to see how Ludovic had to re-assess the hotel guests when he finds his first impressions proving fallible.
Bush’s characters also afford him the opportunity to exercise some of his humour. This comedy, at times, has a unifying effect between the reader and Ludovic, as we can all identify with the feelings engendered by an annoying child intruding into your holiday:
‘The lawn that morning had only one pest, a boy of about nine or ten named Gerald. He was indulging in a bout of exhibitionism, and one word from either of his parents was enough to make him worse. He pushed over a charming little girl and made her cry, he crawled on hands and knees, whooping all the time, among people’s legs, and one could only smile bleakly and hope that that morning he might be carried away by the tide.’
It’s only a shame that dear old Gerald doesn’t get a larger role in the book. Bush’s humour can also have a self-referential quality, which the reader can find on the first page of the book, which begins with a tongue in cheek apologetic prologue, apologising for having a prologue in the first place, rather than jumping straight into the action:
‘A prologue can be an irritating thing. It is like being forced to stand in the queue and listen to mediocre buskers when one might be in one’s comfortable seat and enjoying the show.’
So perhaps not Bush’s strongest effort, but it does contain many of the qualities which characterise his best works.
Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death on Wheels – Any vehicle used to murder