"If you ask me, there very likely wouldn't have been a murder at all if it hadn't been for him getting ideas about peace and goodwill, and assembling all these highly uncongenial people under the same roof at the same time."- Inspector Hemingway (Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca, 1941)
Early last month, Dean Street Press published the first ten titles in a surge of reprints that aim to bring back all sixty-three of Christopher Bush's detective novels about his series-character, Ludovic Travers, who's a financial expert and director of Durangos Ltd – a factotum company offering various services to wealthy clients and large businesses. These services include the use of a discreet private-investigator, John Franklin, who sometimes takes over the role as lead detective from Travers (e.g. The Perfect Murder Case, 1929).
The previous three titles I reviewed in this series, which include Cut Throat (1932) and The Case of the April Fools (1933), propelled Bush to my list of potentially favorite mystery authors. What's not to like about a mystery writer who's halfway between John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts? So I eagerly look forward to the new editions of such promising titles as The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) and The Case of the Missing Minutes (1937), but the second batch of reprints probably won't be published until next year.
Until then, I have to do with the remaining seven Travers mysteries that were reissued last month and decided to pick Bush's take on the snowed-in manor house from the big pile.
Dancing Death (1931) is the fifth entry in the series and is billed on the front-cover as "A Christmas Mystery," but this is misleading as the events of the story take place around New Year's Eve and the cold, snowy days of early January – making this more of a wintertime mystery rather than a holiday one. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of a murderous party at a snowbound manor house remains present regardless of the occasion the characters are celebrating.
A fancy-dress ball is "an annual affair for New Year's Eve" at the ancestral home of Martin Braishe, Little Levington Hall, which he had inherited from his late father a year ago and had several reason for continuing the tradition. One of these reasons is that a party was in order to celebrate his invention of a gas with "amazingly lethal properties." A gas that the War Office had taken a great interest in.
Ludovic Travers and John Franklin, of Durangos Limited, are two of the nine guests who remain at the hall after the ball ended and the following morning confronts them with a host of problems.
During the night, the rooms of several guests had been burgled and money, jewelry and two miniatures from the drawing room had been taken. A safe that was hidden behind a bookcase had been opened and "a siphon of gas" had been taken. An uninvited guest, Crawshaw, was sitting at the diner table, consuming a hearty breakfast, while telling them that he was a schoolteacher whose car was "conked out altogether in the drift" – forcing him to seek refuge at the hall. The worst is yet to come: one of the nine guests, Miranda Quest, was found, still in costume, stuffed beneath her bed with a knife-handle protruding from her chest. A second body is found in the pegoda on the former croquet lawn, which temporarily homed a novelist, Denis Fewne, who lies contorted on his bed. All around him on the floor were splashes of color, "the skeletons of toy balloons," which had been part of his costume.
Franklin gives his host the advice to immediately call the special branch of Scotland Yard, but, not only has the telephone-cord been cut, but the telephone itself has been removed from its cabinet! So Franklin decided to brave the snow and fetch the police himself, while Travers stays behind to begin collecting evidence to hand over to the police when they arrive. And this is the point where the plot becomes tricky to discuss.
Dancing Death has a plot as complex as the innards of a Swiss timepiece, but the gears moved and ticked according to "the blinkin' cussedness of things in general." Even the parts that were meticulously planned ahead of time had to bow to the spontaneous, irrational or inexplicable actions of the people involved. One example of these impulsive actions, with dire consequences, is that two characters had swapped rooms without anyone knowing.
So this aspect alone enmeshes the burglaries and the double murder in a tangle of (random) plot-threads, but the case is further complicated by a third murder and witnesses who have seen a second, unaccountable, harlequin during the fancy-dress party. The presence of this second harlequin becomes an important plot-point and recalls Agatha Christie's "The Affair at the Victory Ball," collected in The Underdog and Other Stories (1951), but the nature of plot clearly demonstrates how closely related Bush was, as a mystery writer, to Carr. Not only for the Merrivalean general cussedness of all things, but also for the impossible crime-material sprinkled throughout the story.
For example, the peculiar death of Denis Fewne was a hair's breadth away from being an impossible murder of the no-footprints variety. The pegado in which he was found was "a sort of summerhouse," converted to a small residence, which at the time of his death was completely surrounded by a thick blanket of snow – only his own footprints lead to the front-door of the one-room structure. This situation could have easily been turned into a full-blown locked room mystery. And why not. The murder had already been committed "under circumstances as fantastic as a nightmare." So you might as well have gone all the way.
Another example of this is the tracing of a track of footprints in the snow back to their original starting point. Only to discover that they suddenly ended. This part is not presented or meant to be taken as an impossibility, but you can imagine how it impressed an impossible crime addict like myself. Finally, there's a scene in which the burglar escapes from a guarded room and the misdirection he uses to escape from his warder could also have been used to stage a seemingly impossible disappearance mystery from that very same room. One that would probably be solved the moment they investigated the grounds beneath the smashed window, but this could have been retooled into a (brief) locked room mystery.
Bush never pulled the trigger on any of these potentially impossible situations. Probably because he already had more than enough plot-material on his plate to work with and work he did! And so does his detective.
Travers does an admirable and superb job in bringing order into chaos and separating all of the relevant clues from the red herrings, which makes Dancing Death a pleasantly involved and intelligently plotted detective story with a coherent and satisfying solution – resulting in one of the strongest holiday, or wintry, themed mysteries I have come across to date.
I only need to read two, or three, more titles by Bush that show the same kind of ingenuity as Dancing Death, Cut Throat and The Case of the April Fools and has cemented a top-spot on my list of all-time favorite mystery writers. Bush may be my favorite discovery, alongside Nicholas Brady, of 2017. So Dean Street Press better hurry with that second serving of Bush and Travers!