9/19/16

A Bolt from the Blue


"What was that somebody said about a bolt from the blue and death coming out of the sky?"
- Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton's "The Arrow of Heaven," from The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926) 
Ernest C. Elmore was a theatrical producer, stage director and playwright, who wrote half a dozen fantasy novels, but abandoned both the stage and the fantasy genre to become a prolific writer of detective stories – which he did under the alias "John Bude." Over a period of twenty-five years, the penname of John Bude appeared on the book covers of thirty mystery novels. A literary legacy that, until now, consisted entirely of very rare, often expensive and highly collectible editions. So these detective stories were long overdue for a second trip through the innards of a printing press!

Thankfully, the British Library Crime Classics, an imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press, have made a dedicated effort to pull his work from the bog of obscurity, five of them so far, of which two have been reviewed on this blog – namely The Cornish Coast Murder (1935) and Death on the Riviera (1952). I found them both to be pleasantly written and highly entertaining mystery novels, but the plots were, alas, not of the same grade as the writing or characterization.

However, the latest book to make a reappearance in this series of reissues, The Cheltenham Square Murder (1937), received some good notices and the plot sounded solid enough. I was not entirely wrong in my presumption.

The Cheltenham Square Murder is Bude's fourth mystery novel, but only the third one to feature his series character: Superintendent Meredith of the Sussex County Police. During his third recorded case, Meredith finds himself in a textbook example of the proverbial busman's holiday. Meredith is invited to spend a portion of his holiday in the company of a well-known crime writer and personal friend, Aldous Barnet, who wants draw on the expertise of the superintendent for the book he's writing. As luck would have it, Barnet's sister went abroad and she placed her home at the disposal of her famous brother. So he could work in peace.

The home of Miss Barnet is situated in Regency Square, one of the iconic squares of Cheltenham Spa, "that famous and lovely town," which exhales "an atmosphere of leisure, culture and almost rural tranquility."

Regency Square consists of ten houses, "erected in the form of a flattened U," but the architecture of these exclusive looking abodes is not uniform. However, the effect is not disharmonious and gives the impression "of a quiet, residential backwater," where old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed "by the rush and clatter" of the modern world – which has left them nothing more than "the memories of a past epoch." As noted in the opening chapter, outward appearance can be very deceiving and the inhabitants have their fair share of problems. Problems that range from small annoyances to the kind of intrusions that could bring someone to murder.

The scene of the crime

Some of the small annoyances consist of "a minor war" about an elm tree, which divided the square in two camps: one side wants the tree removed, while the others wants to the tree to remain where it has stood for over a century. Other irritations include the insistent hymn-singing of the Watt sisters, the yapping of Miss Boon's pack of dogs and the eternal ringing of Dr. Pratt's telephone-bell, but the real trouble can be found in the household of Arthur West – who was deserted by his wife, lost most of his money and had to put his house up for sale. There are two people at the heart of West's precarious situation: a retired stockbroker, Mr. Edward Buller, who made money off his bad advice to West and a really villainous character, Captain Cotton, who had been swarming around his wife.

So you can almost understand when the news reaches that a murder has occurred at the home of Buller, but the true surprise comes when everyone learns the victim is Captain Cotton and the manner in which he died. After all, it did not occur very often that a policeman was confronted, these days, with "the dead body of a man with an arrow embedded in the back of his head." The shaft had entered the room through an open window and the murder weapon, in this instance, does not decrease the pool of potential suspects, because the square is teeming with fervent (amateur) archers – half of them members of the Wellington Archery Club.

This aspect of the plot reminded me of Leo Bruce's Death at St. Asprey’s School (1964), which uses a similar craze for archery, at a boy's boarding school, as a convenient excuse to use the classic bow-and-arrow as a murder weapon. It saddles the detectives of both books with a similar type of problem: who was in a position to loosen the fatal arrow and, in the case of this story, how did this person manage to lug around a cumbersome, six-feet bow. But we're getting ahead of the story.

First of all, the congenial Inspector Long is the man officially assigned to the case, but he's aware of Meredith's past successes and of the opinion that "two heads are better than one," which makes for a pleasant makeshift investigative duo. Long and Meredith have a mish-mash of case to untangle: such as unearthing all of the potential motives and figuring out who knew Cotton was dropping by Buller. Or if the murderer took out the wrong man by accident. However, the wall safe in Cotton's home was opened and sifted through after his death and this puts both policemen on a small trail of blackmail. They also have to consider if the felled tree had to make way, so the murderer could have a clear shot, and who had access to the empty home of West.

So, all of this, makes for a pleasantly busy and engaging mystery novel, but the strongest and weakest point of the plot is the how-aspect of the murders: there are two identical murders, which pose a number of questions to Meredith and Long, but they clever and deceptively presented – only smudge on this is the lack of fair play. You can figure out who the murderer is, but the, admittedly clever, methods this person employed can only be really guessed at. I made a fairly accurate stab in the dark, but only because a pair of short stories, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and R. Austin Freeman, kept popping into my head.

Well, I guess John Bude was one of those writers who wrote stories about detectives instead of detective stories. Regardless, I still found The Cheltenham Square Murder to be a pleasantly written, well characterized and reasonably plotted. It was perhaps not one of the fairest mysteries ever conceived, but the plot was noticeable cleverer and stronger than those from the previous two I've read. So I was not entirely dissatisfied with the end result and would recommend new readers, if they're interested, to start with this one.

4 comments:

  1. Glad to hear that 'Cheltenham Square Murder' fares better than the previous novels. I've only read 'Cornish Coast Murder' so far, and I felt underwhelmed. But I had hopes that it would be a fair-play mystery. :(

    Hopefully Bude has at least one great fair-play mystery novel to his name...

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    1. A bit of fair-play was not one of Bude's strong suits, but I'm rather curious about his two impossible crime novels. Hopefully, they're considered for reprinting somewhere in the near future.

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    2. Impossible crimes sound exciting - I hope they will picked up very soon by the British Library series. :D

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    3. The description of Bude's two impossible crime novels do sound exciting: Death Knows No Calendar has a shooting in a locked studio and a car vanishing from a stretch of fenced road with no apparent exists. Death on Paper has a wheelchair-bound man disappear from a locked and bolted house.

      So, yes, I do hope these get reprinted in the not so distant future.

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