Timing is Everything

"You tried to contrive the perfect alibi, sir. And it's your perfect alibi that's gonna hang you."
- Lt. Columbo (An Exercise in Fatality, 1974)
Christopher Bush was an English schoolteacher and a veteran of both World Wars, reaching the rank of Major, but arguably his greatest accomplished was authoring more than sixty detective novels over a four-decade period – most of them starring his series-character, Ludovic Travers.

During his lifetime, Bush had a accumulated a considerable readership, "a steady Bush public," who had stuck with him throughout those tumultuous, ever-changing decades. Once he retired at the age of 83 in 1968, Bush began to fade from popular memory and his books "disappeared from mass circulation," which resulted in them becoming collector items and some apparently came with a hefty price-tag attached to them – effectively keeping them out of the hands of ordinary readers. This is, however, about to change.

Dean Street Press is on the cusp of reissuing all 63 of Bush's detective novels, which come with a thorough introduction and a preface of each individual book written by our very own genre-historian, Curt Evans – who blogs at The Passing Tramp. The first ten titles in this series of reprints are slated for release in October of this year.

I was given a review copy of one of the book that has been described, by Nick Fuller, as having an ending that will convince "the reader that Bush was to the unbreakable alibi what Carr was to the impossible crime." So I was intrigued to say the least.

Cut Throat (1932) is the seventh entry in the Ludovic Travers series and has a pleasantly intricate, multi-layered plot concerning the many complications twirling around the gruesome slaying of a newspaper tycoon.

Sir William Griffiths is the man "who built up the Associated Press" and has recently washed his hands from a tottering newspaper, called Mercury, which has since been merged with the Evening Record – owned by his long-time rival, Lord Zyon, who can be considered his complete opposite. Lord Zyon gave his newly acquired property a brand new banner to run on, "Free Trade With a Difference," and inaugurated a political movement to begin a "Work-For-All Crusade." The league is going to be formally launched at a rally at Albert Hall and Travers is invited to attend the rally.

Ludovic Travers is the director of Durangos Limited and an economics expert, who wrote such celebrated works as The Economics of a Spendthrift and The Stockbrokers' Breviary, which is why Lord Zyon often consulted him. Travers is asked this time to tackle a minor problem regarding the content of a speech to be given at the rally, but this consultation places him on the forefront of a bizarre murder case.

A case that, surprisingly, begins when Sir William gives Lord Zyon notice that "he will be most certainly on the platform tonight" and the message implied that he's on board with the new movement, because he also dispatched a special hamper filled with personally obtained evidence of illicit "dumping" by some large, popular stores. However, when the wicker basket arrives, and is opened, what they found inside was not evidence of predatory pricing of exports, but the lifeless, bloodied remains of Sir William – with an ugly gash running across his throat.

So the arrival of the hamper marks the beginning of the first part of the police investigation, in which Travers acts in the "capacity of detached observer," as he accompanies Superintendent George "General" Wharton of the Yard on his round of interviews with people who had ties with the victim.

These people include Sir William's heir and nephew, Tim Griffith, a world explorer who recently returned to England from Mongolia. A financial secretary, Mr. Bland, who has "a vulgarian" as a wife and his chess-playing friend, Reverend Cross, are also questioned in addition to the victim's slimy butler, Daniels, and Fred Sanders – a reporter who always seems to be on the spot when something happens. The questioning of these people and the discovery of a burnt-out, smoldering car wreck covers the first half of the book, which ends up explaining part of the journey the body of Sir William made after the murder was committed. And this part of the plot might prove hard to swallow for some readers.

Cut Throat is best described as two separate, but interlacing, stories with one of the two plot-threads detailing how the body was removed from the original crime-scene and eventually ended up inside the hamper. These series of events are completely detached from the murderer's original plan and will strain the credulity of some readers. Personally, I was not too bothered about this outside meddling in the murder, but loved the second half and solution too much to allow the hamper business to dampen my enthusiasm.

During the second part of the book, the murderer's identity, or guilt, becomes more and more apparent, but the only problem is that this person is in possession of an iron-clad alibi!

Nevertheless, Travers brilliantly dismantles this person's carefully constructed alibi and his reconstruction of the evening of the murder was very amusing, which demonstrated how the murderer was able to manipulate time itself. Perhaps it's my chronophobic tendencies speaking, but absolutely loved that ingenious time-manipulation trick. Even the fact that part of explanation came in the form of math homework could not diminish the cleverness of the trick. It's this kind of ingenuity that reminds me why I love detective stories.

So, if this is par for the course for Bush's detective-fiction, I can't but agree with Nick Fuller's observation that he was to the unbreakable alibi what Carr was to the locked room mystery.

Cut Throat has also made me very curious about The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) and The Case of the Missing Minutes (1937), but those two will probably be included in the second batch of reprints. Until then, we can (appropriately) kill some time with the first ten reprints in the Ludovic Travers series and my next review will probably be of another one of Bush's mystery novels. Yes, my appetite has been properly whetted!


  1. This is most excellent news. I have a number of Bush novels, but most are, as you noted, prohibitively priced until now.

    Of the ones I have read, they are indeed the reason why I love detective stories -- written prior to 1970.

    The Bush phenomenon is in fact fairly common in Great Britain. There were a good many detective story writers who reached a large enough constant public to make it profitable for them to publish their yearly detective novel for 30 or 40 years. When no more were published, their reputation swiftly faded. Gladys Mitchell, for instance, a writer I dislike, still fit this pattern. She produced her yearly mystery like clockwork from 1929 right up to her death in 1983. I have no doubt she had a single publisher and made a large enough profit from her regular reading public to keep going over the decades. Over time, this permits a good author to sometimes produce excellent work: they need time to develop. You don't see this any more because there are hardly any real bookmen left who are in publishing for the love of it; what you see are only a much shrunken number of publishers owned by large corporations who are only interested in first pushing their propaganda message and secondly making a profit. The pattern we often see with new mysteries is that the author publishes a few mysteries, a large enough profit is not made (even though they make a profit), and then their books vanish for good. I think I can confidently predict that no mystery novelist now writing will still be in print, or be reprinted, 50 years from now (assuming anyone is still capable of reading 50 years from now).

    1. Michael Innes is another writer who was able to publish one, or two, detective novels a year until he retired in the mid-1980s. I don't know how obscure he became upon his retirement, but he was one of the first GAD authors to be brought back in print during the very early 2000s by House of Stratus. Gladys Mitchell followed during the mid-2000s. So maybe their late retirement/passing left a stronger impression in the minds of the people who were reprinting their work at the time. Anyhow...

      The problem of publishers not giving writers the time and space to grow and built an audience could have been solved by the self-publishing industry, but that branch of publishing still has a crippling problem with quality control.

      However, the proper publishing houses also suffer from a quality problem, which is the biggest reason why so many of today's writers will be forgotten over the next twenty years. Just look at what has been written and published over the past ten, twenty, thirty or forty years. What has survived? What is still being read? And how many of those will still be read a hundred years from now? I really believe what is being written is a bigger factor in today's writers destined to be completely forgotten than not getting the time and space to grow.

      Sherlock Holmes and the Golden Age are standing up to the test of time, but very much doubt many of today's modern, hard-hitting, socially and politically driven crime novels will be read or sought after in the 2060s and beyond.

      One of the perks of having a taste for these classics, is that they become more readily available with each passing year. A complete reprint of Bush's detective novels is the latest example of this. So I don't really care regular publishers are pumping out raw sewage. As long as I have these reprints, a slowly expanding public domain and a secondhand book market to fall back on when the first two fail.

  2. House of Stratus did us an immense service. I was able to complete my collections of R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, Sapper, Anthony Berkeley and others from their reprints.

    If someone is looking for an alibi king, Crofts is certainly in the running.

    It is difficult for books which are too topical to stand the test of time; when the issues with which they deal fade, the books tend to fade with them. I suspect that modern authors are being essentially forced to write using selected issues under editorial coercion; the end result is that their backlist will be unsalable. The backlist is the gift that keeps on giving for both writer and publisher. Then another publisher goes out of business and there are even fewer markets for authors and the whole thing goes into a death spiral.

    1. If someone is looking for an alibi king, Crofts is certainly in the running.”

      I've only a read a few by Crofts, but Mystery in the Channel certainly has a great alibi-trick worthy of that title.

      It is difficult for books which are too topical to stand the test of time; when the issues with which they deal fade, the books tend to fade with them.”

      This is why plot actually matters. You can get topical, or even political, but a detective story needs a plot that can stand on its own when you strip it of the issues the story is dressed in.

      The previously mentioned Mystery in the Channel is a good example, which strongly condemns the financial “sheninangans” of its time, but the story never degenerates into moralistic showboating. It is an excellently plotted detective story that can even be considered an ancestor to the modern-day police procedural.

      Sadly, those modern-day police produrals and crime novels have forgotten the lessons of their ancestors.

  3. Good review - and I'm amused to see myself quoted! Bush is uneven, but, at his best, excellent. Of the first ten, I'd recommend DEAD MAN TWICE and TCOT APRIL FOOLS (both excellent). I'd probably rank UNFORTUNATE VILLAGE higher if I hadn't read it at one chapter a day for a fortnight!

    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Nick! And isn't it wonderful people can finally follow up on your recommendations? Back in the mid-2000s, I wanted to try all those Mitchell's you praised or discussed on your old website, but was almost entirely depended on the Rue Morgue Press reprints. Now all of her detective novels are back in print.

    2. Which is wonderful! I can't quite believe (not to beat around the Bush) that I can download The Plumley Inheritance (rarissimus!), or will be able to read Flying Ass and the WWII books. Kudos to Curt and the publishers.

  4. When I quoted Nick's line in the introduction, I wondered whether I should mention Crofts, as he was commonly designated the alibi king of his day, based on the reputation he had built up in the Twenties. But Bush has a real flair for them and is a livelier writer. I don't really consider him a "Humdrum" writer, at least not in the prewar period, because he has more of an interest in the gamesmanship between the reader and the author that Carr valued so highly. Nick compares Bush to Carr at times and I can see the point. Both authors even mention Maskelyne and Devant, the magicians.

    1. If the time-manipulation trick here is representative of his other work, I think the comparison to Carr is more than justified. After all, Carr's pet technique was the rearrangement of space-and time.

    2. Yes, there’s a real sense, as Curt says, of the detective story as a game, that's largely lacking from Crofts. (Crofts and his school, going back to Freeman, are more interested in processes - how the detective solves the crime and proves his case, how the criminal commits it - than in the detective story as a battle of wits.) In his introduction to The Perfect Murder Case, Curt points to the book’s opening as an example of challenging the reader.

      Bush also “dangles clues lovingly in front of the reader”. Many books open with Travers telling the reader what the main clues are – and daring the reader to make sense of them.

  5. On the series reprints, I've been trying to do what I can to get the entire series reissued. In my opinion the British Library approach is best suited to small producers like Raymond Postgate and Anthony Rolls (the prewar pseudonym of C. E. Vulliamy), but less so to big producers like John Street, Gladys Mitchell, Christopher Bush, Jefferson Farjeon,John Dickson Carr, ER Punshon, the Coles, etc. At the rate they are going it would take literally decades to get all the books by some of these authors released. Not all of us have decades! I suppose it may be a valid marketing strategy but it's frustratingly piecemeal for the diehard fans.

    So far I've been able to get Connington, Henry Wade, Punshon and Bush reprinted, among the big producers and heavy hitters from the GA (outside of the famous first string of Christie, Sayers, etc). I also was able to bring Farjeon and Anthony Wynne to people's attention on the internet, though Bill Pronzini had written about Wynne before me and Tony Medawar was interested in him too. I tried to get all the Wynne books reprinted, but sometimes you get cooperation from families, sometimes you don't. Connington's daughter was very helpful, for example, as was Henry Wade's son. I think it helps when you are dealing with the actual children, but not many of them are alive anymore!

    Still, the British seem to be doing better at this than the Americans. We may have awakened the world to the reality that other people in the UK wrote vintage mystery besides the Crime Queens, but a lot of people still seem to think, as PD James did, that classic mystery was the sole province of the British.

    1. "I tried to get all the Wynne books reprinted, but sometimes you get cooperation from families, sometimes you don't."

      I thought his heirs only had a problem with his political ideas, or economic theories, getting republished, because it attracted a crowd they were not particularly charmed by. Surely, that does not extend all the way to his mystery novels? He was a very productive writer of impossible crime fiction and would love to see at least a few of them appear back in print.

      Anyhow, you're doing God's work on earth, Curt! We love what you're doing with Dean Street Press and Coachwhip. So don't worry about not being able to bring every single line written during the Golden Age back into print.

    2. Oh, no, it wasn't that, at least I don't believe so. After all, BL was able to get Murder of a Lady, which I had really praised on the blog, reprinted. It would be nice to see all of his back though. They certainly vary in quality, but some I quite enjoyed. And they do have the fun of the miracle problem.