Earlier this month, Dean Street Press released the third batch of ten titles in Christopher Bush's outstanding Ludovic Travers series, originally published between 1939 and 1946, covering the entire period of World War II.
During these years, Bush penned a trilogy of wartime detective novels, "drawing directly on his own recent experience in British military service," described by our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, as arguably "the most notable series of wartime detective fiction" published in Britain during WWII – seeming more informed by "martial experience" than other, more well-known, wartime mysteries (e.g. Christianna Brand's Green for Danger, 1944).
The Case of the Murdered Major (1941), The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942) form this thematic trilogy and decided to read all three of them back-to-back. So let's get started!
Bush served in an administrative capacity during the Great War and briefly returned to active duty in 1939 when he helped administer prisoner of war and alien internment camps, which earned him a promotion from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain, before being granted indefinite release from service on medical grounds – retiring with the rank of Major in August, 1940. This allowed him to return full-time to writing detective fiction and drew on his personal experience of running internment camps for the first of his three lauded wartime mysteries.
The Case of the Murdered Major is the twenty-third novel in the Ludovic Travers series and broke with the previous novels by dispensing with the third person narration.
The story is related by "an anonymous individual serving in the British Army," who resembles the author, after which all of the books are narrated in the first person and Travers begins his conversion from an inquisitive amateur to a genteel private-investigator in the mold of American hardboiled detective (e.g. The Case of the Amateur Actor, 1955). However, here we see Travers in a position that differs very much from his past and future incarnations.
Captain Travers has been appointed Adjutant Quartermaster of No. 54 Prisoner of War Camp in the city of Shoreleigh, "a grim sort of place," where a huge, out-of-date Victorian hospital has been turned into a POW camp with huts, movable barriers and piles of sandbags – surrounded by "a double apron of barbed wire." There are a couple of helpful diagrams and floor plans of the camp to help the reader get a good mental image of the place.
The senior official placed in charge of this POW camp is the unlikable, woolly-minded and short-tempered Major Stirrop.
Major Stirrop leadership, or lack thereof, was like sand in what would otherwise have been a well-oiled, efficient machine and never took any personal responsibility. Consequently, Major Stirrop had not only lost the respect of his own man, who called him "a twerp of the first water," but was dangerously close to losing their loyalty. Travers way of dealing with his superior is composing "a queer sort of document," entitled The Case of the Murdered Major, in which he worked out a way to murder Major Stirrop and crafted a perfect alibi. A piece of paper that would come back to haunt him later on in the story. However, it goes to show how much of a pain Major Stirrop really is when even the series-character took great pleasure in imagining his murder.
The problems really begin to stir at the camp when the first group of German prisoners arrive, "a mixed collection of planters, Nazi agents and wandering Gestapo men," who were aboard a captured ship on the West Coast of Africa and number seventy-three in total – only problem is that there appears to be a phantom prisoner among them. Every day, there's a headcount of the prisoners and on several occasions there appeared to be one additional prisoner. When they recounted the prisoners, the number was back to normal. Someone is moving around the camp unseen and unimpeded.
I mentioned in my review of Dead Man Twice (1930) how Bush's plots often include borderline or quasi-impossibilities and the way the problem of the spare prisoner is presented is another example of this. After all, the problem is not just the inexplicable appearance and disappearance of an unaccounted prisoner, but that this person managed to "lay doggo somewhere during the day" without being detected. Only to appear when the prisoners were being counted, which is sheer madness.
A second quasi-impossibility occurs when the body of Major Stirrop is found in the snow outside of the main building, beyond the body was deep depression, but the snow surrounding both the body and depression lacked the expected footprints. This is, however, not seen as an impossibility or treated as an obstacle the murderer had to overcome to get to the victim, but it goes to show how closely related Bush was to the locked room sub-genre. Bush could have been remembered as a notable contributor to the impossible crime story had he retooled all of his borderline impossibilities into full-blown miracle crimes, but, even just as plot-driven howdunits, they're a treat to read – especially if your personal taste runs in the direction of plot-driven, jigsaw puzzle detective stories.
The story takes an interesting turn when Superintendent George "The General" Wharton appears on the scene and has his "finest hour" as he slowly, but surely, eclipses Travers.
A reader who's introduced to this series through The Case of the Murdered Major might mistake Wharton as the series-detective, because he not only ferreted the murderer from the closed circle of suspects, but also knocked down this person's carefully staged alibi. An alibi directly linked to the murder method. Meanwhile, Travers emerges from this story as a Dr. Watson or Captain Hastings rather than an Albert Campion or Lord Wimsey.
There is, however, no shame in playing second fiddle to the General of Scotland Yard and Travers had a lot on his plate here. He had to readjust to army life, after being out of the game for more than twenty years, after which he had to take over the camp when Major Stirrop was murdered. I also think that's part of the charm of this wartime detective story. Travers had his duty to fulfill and this prevented him from fully playing amateur detective, which is an approach I have never seen from detective novels or short stories from this period. The upside of Travers being too occupied to properly play detective is that I finally got my Superintendent Wharton novel!
On a whole, The Case of the Murdered Major is a well-written, tightly plotted detective novel with an intriguing backdrop, inspired by Bush's own experiences, which only had one real drawback – namely its shorter than usual length. The story impressed me as a good deal shorter than the previous entries in the series and can probably be blamed on paper rationing. This is also the reason why this review has been rather summary when it comes to plot-details and characters, because one half of the short novel looked at how the camp is run and sets up the plot. And the second half has the murder and solution. So you can't really go into the finer details without giving away vital information. Nevertheless, the end result is a clever and compact mystery novel that comes highly recommended. Particularly to readers interested in (crime) fiction from the Second World War.
My next stop in this trio of wartime detective novels is going to be The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel and from what I gleaned the plot pays homage to the first spy movie/play of the war (Cottage to Let, 1941). So stay tuned!