"Our April Fool's joke had turned completely around, so as to make fools of us all."
- Dr. Watson (Ken Greenwald's "The April Fool's Adventure," collected in The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1989)
Uncovering the work of a previously unexplored, or even unknown, writer from the Golden Era of the detective story is always a pleasure, but when the stories are consistently good, even improving with each succeeding book, you potentially have a brand new favorite on your hands – which brings me, once again, to the work of Christopher Bush. Yes, I know. I promised in my previous blog-post that a review of Case Closed would be next, but decided to go for the hat-trick by tackling another one of Bush's mystery novels.
The Case of the April Fools (1933) is the ninth book in the Ludovic Travers series and the only novel-length detective story exploring the plot possibilities of All Fool's Day.
Previously, I have only came across the April Fool's Day theme in a handful of short stories, which include Ellery Queen's "The Emperor's Dice" (Calendar of Crime, 1952), Peter Godfrey's "The Flung-Back Lid" (The Newtonian Egg and Other Cases of Rolf Le Roux, 2002) and the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that provided an opening quote for this post. And that pastiche originated as an episode of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio-plays written by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green.
So using the chicanery of April Fool's Day, as a premise for a detective story, looks to have been mostly a play toy of writers who belong, or can be linked, to the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection, but Bush doesn't really belong to this group of writers – and that makes his novel-length treatment of this idea all of the more interesting. Let's dig in, shall we?
The Case of the April Fools begins with Ludovic Travers going over the paperwork pertaining to a vacant piece of property, the Mermaid Theater, of which Durangos Limited is negotiating the lease. A dilettante stage producer, Courtney Allard, has been toying with the idea to purchase the lease and dropped in on Travers with his business partner, Charles Crewe. So nothing out of the ordinary there and the relationship between both men would had remained purely a business one had Travers not serendipitously overheard a conversation between Allard and Crewe at a restaurant. And they were talking about Travers!
Allard was overheard saying that Travers "looked a bit of a fool" and Crewe suggested he'd ask him to come along with them, because "a jury'd believe every word he said" and that makes him "pretty useful as a witness." On the following morning, there's a letter in the mail inviting Travers to stay the night at Allard's country house, The Covers, to talk things over regarding the lease.
As to be expected, Travers becomes at once ensnared in a beautifully woven, but complex and knotted, web that has been spun around the perplexing circumstances of a double murder. Both of them committed, one after another, on the morning after his arrival at The Covers.
The first of the two victims is the business partner of his client, Charles Crewe, whose body is found slumped beneath the open window of his bedroom with "the handle of a knife protruding from his ribs," which completely shocks Allard – who mutters confusingly "we only meant it as a joke." Travers hurries out of the room to call the police, but, while he's away, a gunshot echoes through the house. When he returns to the room, Travers discovers that a second body has been added to the crime-scene: Allard was lying on his back with a gunshot wound underneath his chin, which plowed a bullet upward through his skull. Only problem is that the room is bare of any firearms that could explain this second death as a suicide.
So, there you have it, "a dastardly double murder," committed on April Fool's Day, to test the mettle of both detectives helming this detective story, of which the second is Chief Inspector Norris of Scotland Yard – who's actually the one who puts all the pieces together in the end. But more on that later.
First of all, Travers and Norris have to run through the entire gamut of potential suspects, clues and red herrings.
These clues and red herrings range from anonymous death threats, addressed to Crewe, to talks about a long-forgotten murder case that involved a Harley Street specialist, but equally interesting was the background of the characters that were gathered at the county house – including a couple of (American) actors. Allard and Crewe were developing a stage-play and the opening chapter showed, what could be called today, viral marketing with posters appearing all over the city showing a green-sleeved mandarin billed as Wen Ti. However, the posters did not make it clear what exactly they were advertising and this gave rise to a good deal of speculation.
Well, the plot-strand about the identity of this mysterious Chinaman, who was scheduled to make an appearance at the country house, is a very minor one and somewhat anti-climatic. Regardless, the reason for the poster campaign, the presence of the actors and pretty much everything else were revealed to be irreplaceable cogs in the machine of the plot. A machine that needed every single cog, wheel and valve to work exactly in the way it did in order to create the baffling double murder, which is really impressive.
I think this goes to show that Bush really was a mystery writer who was halfway between Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr.
On the one hand, you have an intricate plot that can only be described as Carrian and recalled a particular story from The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), but has a solution anticipating a rather well-known locked room novel by Carr. I suppose the only real weakness of the plot is that seasoned readers of impossible crime stories can probably gauge the outline of the truth, but that still leaves you with having to fill in the details and clearing up all the loose ends.
And that brings us to the other hand. Once again, the detective work is split between different characters, Travers and Norris, but this time it's the policeman who upstages the amateur sleuth at his own game – figuring out the truth in a moment of inspiration when his children play an April Fool's prank on him. I assume this must have surprised readers at the time, because most of them were probably still accustomed to the Lestrade-type of Scotland Yard detectives in a case that involves one of those civilian snoops.
For more than one reason, I found The Case of the April Fools to be an intriguing read with an elaborately constructed, Carrian-style plot that could easily have been retooled as a full-fledged locked room story. On top of that, I believe the plot is the only example of a novel-length detective story built around the shenanigans of All Fools' Day. So, yes, I begin to believe to have found another Golden Age favorite in Bush and look forward to future reprints by Dean Street Press, but, after having read three of them back-to-back, I'll be taking a break from Bush. But you have not seen the last of him, or Travers, on this blog!