Christopher Bush's The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942) is the twenty-fifth novel in the Ludovic Travers series and concluded a wartime trilogy, anteceded by The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) and The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942), which places Travers on the staff of a new Home Guard school in Derbyshire – resulting in a war-themed scholastic mystery. So this may very well be the only detective novel to combine a school setting with a strong war-theme sewn through the plot.
|Reprinted by Dean Street Press|
An urgent postal telegram summons Major Travers to the War Office, Room 299, where he learns that the Home Guard is in need of skilled instructors. The Home Guard came into being after Dunkirk to meet "the imminent threat of invasion," but, now that they were fully armed and equipped, what they needed is "an enormous number of trained instructors" to turn the paper tiger of the Home Guard into a regular fighting force – who know how to use the weapons and are skilled in "the very latest methods of attack and defense." However, the task allotted to Travers at Peakridge is not as exciting as training the Home Guard in explosives and guerrilla tactics.
Travers is to lecture on administration, because a lot of men simply don't seem to get the hang of the administrative side. Something that's becoming very important.
No. 5 School for Instructors of Home Guard at rugged Peakridge in Derbyshire has a staff drawn from professional, full-time soldiers ("Regulars") and "Not-So-Regular" members of the army. The Home Guard was formed to defend the islands in case of invasion and, when they can no longer hold a defensive position, they become guerrillas to "harry the Hun," which is why the irregulars were attracted as instructors – who gained valuable experience in anti-tank warfare and guerrilla tactics in such scraps as the Spanish Civil War. After only a week, or so, the staff was split into two camps with Travers acting as "as a kind of liaison officer."
The Case of the Fighting Soldier is narrated by Travers and he tells the reader that he has disguised the names of the characters, because he "cannot even hint at the real names." All of the name describe the man or his duties at the school. For example, Colonel Topman is the top man of the lot and Flick is in charge of the school cinema.
So this is probably nothing more than to give the story a (fictional) whiff of authenticity, but you have to wonder whether the characters, or their personalities, were based on people Bush had met during his time in the army. It could be a sly way of telling the reader that, yes, these characters really do exist. According to our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, Bush probably pulled a similar stunt in The Case of the Monday Murders (1936) with a character who could have been modeled on Anthony Berkeley.
One of the school instructors is Captain Mortar, a very brash, self-styled fighting soldier, who fought in The Great War, The Spanish Civil War, Mexico and Bolivia – reputedly "cursed like hell because he couldn't be in South America and Abyssinia at the same time." Mortar has brought along his own batman, Feeder, which is very irregular and not entitled to wear a uniform, but Feeder had been fighting with Mortar all over the world. Together with a man by the name of Ferris, who fought in Spain, they represent the faction of irregulars. Unpopular with their fellow staff members, but immensely popular with the Home Guard students.
However, Mortar has a genius for making enemies and there are several near "accidents." During a demonstration with the Blacker Bombard, a winged, twenty-pound bomb with nine pounds of high-explosives inside is fired, but it was aimed low and didn't explode. There are traces of chewing-gum found inside the barrel of the bomb launcher, but even more worrying is that they're unable to locate and destroy the unexploded bomb.
A second incident occurs on the bombing ground where the students are instructed how the throw grenades with dummy bombs. Ferris is conducting this class from the middle of the ground, into which the dummy bombs would be thrown, but, all of a sudden, there was a crashing roar of an explosion and Ferris had a narrow escape, which turns out to have been a live grenade – attached to a length of a twine and a peg. A good, old-fashioned booby-trap! The culmination of these incidents is a huge explosion blowing Captain Mortar to Kingdom Come in his bedroom and the booby-trap employed here is worthy of John Rhode.
Superintendent George "The General" Wharton was an Intelligence officer in the previous war and is summoned to the school to investigate the death of Mortar, but this task is done under the guise of a special lecturer on security. This means that he's back in uniform and turned his huge walrus mustache into a first-class buffalo, which made him nearly unrecognizable to Travers. And speaking of Travers. The Case of the Fighting Soldier is the third time in a row that he's upstaged by Wharton. So this wartime trilogy should really be considered the Superintendent Wharton mini-series with Travers as a supporting character.
Anyway, the first half of the story is arguably the best part of the book. The background of the Home Guard school is fascinating and the setup of the plot, alongside the initial stages of the investigation, were very well done, but interest began to flack a little bit in the second half as the story slowly morphed in a regular whodunit. A whodunit that was not all that difficult to solve. I immediately spotted the motive of the murder and the identity of the culprit can easily be worked out from there, which makes this book, plot-wise, the lesser entry in this trilogy – which is not to say that this is a bad mystery. Just not the best in the series.
There is, however, an interesting scene in the second half demonstrating to the reader how Travers' brain work. Travers has often alluded in previous novels that his mind is of "the crossword kind" and his contribution to the solution came when he solved a crossword puzzle in an illustrated magazine. There's even a diagram of the crossword puzzle he was working on when a remark from Mortar came flooding back to him, but it was his policeman friend who followed this evidence to its logical conclusion. Nevertheless, I still think Travers is the best example of how the create a fallible detective without crushing their conscience with guilt over a failure. I'm looking at you, Ellery Queen!
So, all in all, The Case of the Fighting Soldier is a good, but not the best, entry in both this series and trilogy of wartime detective novels. I'm glad this trio of war stories ceded the spotlight of detective to Superintendent Wharton. A normally secondary character who's more than deserving to upstage the series-character and you can easily see how Wharton could have helmed his own series. So this was a nice side-track in the series, but hope to see Travers get the best of his policeman friend again in my next read.