Ludovic Travers is having a jaunt in rural Suffolk, driving to the home of his old friend Henry Morle, who lives in the village of Marstead. However, when he gets rather lost on a country lane, a car comes zooming passed; driving in reckless and dangerous fashion. One is therefore not surprised when Travers come across this car further down the road, crashed. Yet the victim, Norman Ranger, was not drunk driving, he had in fact been poisoned with atropine… It also seems like this highly unpopular newcomer had his house burgled the same night, and then a second body, having died from the same poison, shows up. Just what is going on exactly?
Despite beginning in a village, I would not categorise this as a typical or full-on village mystery. The motive for this crime, as well as the history of the primary victim, takes the sleuths outside of the village, and Travers has much driving around to do. Other possible motives for the murder are interestingly not completely redundant in the plot, as they manage to make their way into how the crime is carried out in reality, (in comparison to how it was planned). Although the motive does bring the plot back to the village and like many other village mysteries, this book weaves in the issue of newcomers being able to invent their own past, and no one being able to say otherwise.
There are many sleuths involved in this case, beginning with the local police and Henry Morle itching to play Watson to Travers’ Holmes. Then Scotland Yard come on the scene, and after that both the local police and Morle get somewhat side-lined. Though I don’t think Travers seems keen in this book to have a Watson hanging around, unless it is useful for him. It is also interesting to see how the Scotland Yard representative is able to show Travers up a bit in this case, pointing out things he has overlooked or not cottoned on to. In fact, despite Travers normally being quite an intelligent individual, I think he is rather obtuse at times in this story. There are answers to puzzling actions, which are pretty obvious, which he fails to see.
I also felt on one or two occasions that Travers was a little bit irksome in his social niceties. His initial reasons for not sharing all of his knowledge straight away are somewhat priggish, and there is this weird moment where he becomes overly considerate:
‘Henry, at my elbow, whispered that I might ask him to dinner. I thought that a bit too grandiloquent and might scare Jewle off.
“Run out here for a change,” I said. “And Sir Henry would like you to have a bite with us. It’ll be ready by the time you get here, or soon after. No need to wash behind your ears.”’
For me this seemed like over-writing and gives a slightly annoying tinge to Travers’ character. But these moments are short lived, so they don’t mar your overall reading of the book.
The how of the crime is focused on first, and I felt the various investigators figured it out well. Consequently, this initial focus on the forensic evidence means there are plenty of physical clues for the reader to grapple with. What’s more they also help to muddy the case, as they do not marry up with each other at times. For example, a body is shown to have been in a particular car boot, but then this car boot does not contain traces of a substance liberally coated on the victim’s clothing. The sleuths have to work on identifying the correct order of events, as the killer’s plans have unforeseen results, which confuse what was meant to happen and what was not.
In keeping with other later books by Bush, contemporary culture and history is embedded in the text with the Korean war being referenced more than once. We also get Travers touching upon the increasingly prevalent American private eye novel:
“No longer am I the incomplete detective. This case has made me, Henry. You’ve read plenty of detective novels. Novels about British and American private eyes. You know what’s expected of them and what you always get: the real top-notchers, that is. They drink whisky by the quart, their morals are as lax as the clients are beautiful, and they’re constantly getting slugged over the head. Well, now I’m in their class. It’s taken twenty years to do it, Henry, but I’ve received the accolade. I too have been slugged.”
He laughed. “That’s one way of looking at it.” Then his look became roguish. “But you’ll pardon one question. Surely you haven’t received the complete accolade. What about the whisky? And the women?”
“Don’t rush me,” I told him. “Give me time, Henry. Give me time.”
Travers, perhaps being more of a Campion type sleuth, manages to pull off this sort of scene well, in a way that Poirot never could.
Despite the effective narrative used for uncovering how the crime happened, and for the unfurling of the background motive, I felt the revealing of the killer was less successful. A bigger range of suspects was needed, and their way of trapping or proving the guilt of the murderer, is a little tenuous, though also quite amusing in some respects.
Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title here.