Today I am beginning my look at the latest twofer from the British Library, which includes the above title and Death Knows No Calendar (1944), (which I will be looking at next). Both of these titles are very rare books to obtain, so this reprint is highly useful. This first novel has a theatrical theme and according to Martin Edwards, ‘in real life, [Bude] indulged his taste for amateur dramatics while teaching in Letchworth, and during the 1920s he worked as a stage manager with the Lena Ashwell Players.’ He continued to be involved local amateur dramatics through his life he and even ‘produced plays on behalf of charities.’
Sam Richardson, a biscuit millionaire, has moved his interests to the world of theatre and now owns the Beaumont Theatre, whose aim is to provide intellectual plays. To guide him in this we have Basil Barnes as his producer, who is portrayed as more intelligent and cultured, but also as more dangerous and self-serving. Clara Maddison, Willy Farham and young Angela Walsh are three of the key actors, whilst the stage designer is Deirdre Lehaye; Barnes’ mirror double in personality. The gregarious and generous Sam encourages his employers to stay at his country house, the Old Knolle, during the summer and early play readings also take place there. Basil even buys a cottage next door. The first 130 or so pages of this book chart such a summer portraying in vivid and captivating detail the tensions and animosities simmering and eventually boiling under and over the surface. Blackmail, jealousy, spite, fear, comic misunderstandings, theft and false accusations and love triangles abound and combine into one potent country house mystery. You could say there is one character who is at the centre of the storm, in fact you could go even further and say that it is they who perpetuate it and add to its’ tumultuousness. Yet this is one Iago figure who is going to get their comeuppance…
Authors writing about what they know can certainly make a difference to the quality of their novels’ milieus. This is the case here as Bude’s experience of the theatrical world flourishes on the page and has a significant impact on the depth of his characterisation. The intricacy and complexity of the portrayal of the love triangles and the group of characters exceed Bude’s characterisation work in his earlier novels. Bude’s knowledge of theatre also enables him to indulge in moments of gentle satire, such as when he makes the comment that: ‘It is, of course, a notorious fact that intelligent theatre-goers have no money and moneyed theatre-goers have no intelligence.’ This gentle satire also makes its way into Bude’s depiction of Sam’s country retreat, Old Knolle:
‘It looked like a castle […] and there was no doubt that the mid-Victorian architect who had designed it for a new peer had been influenced by Balmoral. It had one or two useless towers stuck on the corners, like saucy P.S.’s to a highly respectable letter.’
This example also shows how Bude uses imagery in an unforgettable fashion, as I don’t think I have ever seen towers described in such a way before! Additionally, there is also the wonderful and memorable description of Sam’s housekeeper Mrs Dreed:
‘Mrs Dreed was not a housekeeper; she was an atmosphere. She was a chill wind blowing down a corridor. A draught under the door. A silence descending on a cocktail party. A shadow on the grass. Mrs Dreed was always present before she was actually noticed.’
I really enjoy how Bude, in a matter of words, conjures up a sinister atmosphere.
Out of the whole body of characters I think my interest was most piqued by Barnes and Lehaye, as they’re intriguing mirror antagonists of others and even each other. The opening of the book sets up the expectation that Barnes, womaniser and self-lover, has finally met his match in Lehaye:
‘…she was tall, dark, icy and so dead sure of herself that the majority of men were scared to approach her. Not so Basil […] But Basil, profoundly aware of those ice-green eyes, knew that her reason for this was not the one which came automatically into his mind. She was not flirting. She was manoeuvring herself into an advantageous position, so that in due course she could pounce and make her kill.’
The question which is on our lips is, what does she want? Bude keeps us guessing for quite a while on that score. It would be reasonable to expect that these two might join forces romantically, Benedick and Beatrice style, yet Bude deviates away from this predicted course of event and instead complicates the character of Barnes, having him fall in love with another. The fact he can fall in love at all is surprising, not least to himself and it is enjoyable to read a cynical character observing their own radical change in behaviour. Although his newfound love does not make him a saint and I think Bude builds up a more unusual love triangle with such a character.
Given the theatrical flavour of the piece it is fitting that Bude’s work implicitly alludes to Shakespeare, as Deirdre increasingly comes across as an Iago figure. I love how it is a stage designer, rather than an actress, who is a bit of a diva. A diva, who is very much a mischief maker. Initially this behaviour may come across as Puck-ish (Midsummer Night’s Dream) or like Maria’s antics in Twelfth Night. Yet I think the more you read, the more the mischief holds an Iago note, with its self-interest and disregard for others’ wellbeing. After all the text does say that:
‘There she was ready to complicate the web which she had started to spin at Old Knolle. Intrigue was as meat and wine to her. Much as one woman was dedicated to bridge and another to squash or the singing of madrigals, intrigue was her hobby.’
Often writers setting up motives for their country house murder mystery, will do so relatively quickly and have the body turn up soon afterwards. However, Bude perhaps adopts more of Georgette Heyer structure, with the story being something of a slow burner, with the murder appearing two-thirds of the way through the book. Nevertheless, I found his take on this style very refreshing and I think he created a very effective build up to the murder. I would even go as far as saying that there is something Dorothy L. Sayer-like in the quality of the characterisation. Bude makes you eager to find out how everyone’s lies, concealments and fabrications will resolve themselves.
The immediate events proceeding the murder, as well as evidence at the crime scene have a number of unusual features: a phantom-like vision of a woman in white, suspects who were not in their rooms when they should have been, a prime suspect who seems a touch too convenient and the baffling question of why the murder victim was outside during the middle of the night in September wearing only white satin pyjamas? (A question which is further complicated by later evidence.)
Inspector Harting, is our police sleuth and on the whole, I found him to be a likeable character to follow. He has quite a quiet personality, yet Bude’s depiction of his fallibility and false starts, gives his character endearing moments of humanity. I am a little confused as to why it took the inspector quite so long to call in any other officers, but I was glad when Sergeant Dane arrived on the scene. He is not subservient to his boss and quite happily says what he thinks, shooting down his superior’s theories if they have holes in them. Though to the credit of Dane and Harting they conduct a thorough investigation and Bude does well to write about it engagingly.
However, we now arrive at the “but” part of the review. The main weakness of this book is the ease with which the reader can pick out the culprit, within pages of the body being discovered. In fact, it is due to the strength of the characterisation that it is so easy to identify the killer. The crime, along with a few pieces of dialogue, point the finger too firmly in one direction. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see how the police would tumble to the same idea, lacking the foreknowledge of the reader. Furthermore, the “how” of the crime has some unusual aspects to it.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this read and I enjoyed seeing a new side to Bude’s writing style. I am looking forward to reading Death Knows No Calendar, next. Not least because it contains two impossible mysteries!
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)