Christopher Bush's The Case of the Treble Twist (1958) is the 51st mystery novel in the Ludovic Travers series and the first title from the last consignment of Dean Street Press reprints, which began in 2017 with the extremely obscure, long out-of-print The Plumley Inheritance (1926) and concluded in 2022 with The Case of the Prodigal Daughter (1968) – counting sixty-three novels in total in addition to a standalone thriller (The Trail of the Three Lean Men, 1932). I haphazardly skipped through about half of the series and actually wanted to return to an earlier point in the series like The Case of the Three Strange Faces (1933) or The Case of the Leaning Man (1938). Something about The Case of the Treble Twist caught my attention.
last baker's dozen of Bush reissues is introduced by our very own
in-house genre historical, Curt
Evans, who wrote how "the sun finally begin to set on that
storied generation" of the genre's Golden Age as the 1960s
began to dawn on the horizon. And the last remaining, half-dozen
survivors of that generation tried to adjust or adept as the world
around them "strayed farther from the whimsically escapist death
as a game aesthetic of Golden Age of detective fiction."
John Dickson Carr retreated into the mists of time to set "his tales in bygone historical eras where he felt vastly more at home," while Agatha Christie "made a brave effort to stay abreast of the times" (e.g. The Third Girl, 1966) before "her strivings to understand what was going on around her collapsed into the utter incoherence" – e.g. Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) and Postern of Fate (1973). Christopher Bush turned out to be the most adaptable of his generation and he saw the writing on the wall as early as the 1940s. The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) shifted the series narrative style from third-person to first-person and Travers became the permanent narrator in the next book, The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942). So began the transformation of Travers from a typical, British amateur detective to an Americanized licensed private eye, which was a process not without some growing pains as the elaborately baroque plotting, time-linked murders and unbreakable alibis were phased out or toned down to make way for leaner, slightly more realistic storytelling, characterization and plotting. However, Bush carried on "the Golden Age article of faith that the primary purpose of a crime writer is pleasingly to puzzle his/her readers" as novels like The Case of the Three Lost Letters (1954), The Case of the Flowery Corpse (1956) and The Case of the Russian Cross (1957) can attest.
So a 1950s Christopher Bush novel titled The Case of the Treble Twist, published in the US simply as The Case of the Triple Twist, caught my attention. When the introduction promised Bush's "most ingeniously contrived cases from the Fifties, full of charm, treacherous deception and, yes, plenty of twists, including one that is a real sockaroo," I decided to move it to the top of the pile.
Ludovic Travers, director of the Broad Street Detective Agency, opens the story with remarking, "there was something unique about the Case of the Treble Twist" as "it isn't often one gets a preview of a case or hovers round its fringes four years before it breaks." But that's what happened. Four years ago, "on a dirty night of October," Travers bumps into a very good friend, Chief-Inspector Jewle, who looked worried as he has a string of jewel robberies on his plate and the police barely has a clue how the culprits disposed of the loot – except a whisper or two about "a really high-class fence." On the other hand, Jewle has a potential suspect, Harry Tibball, who runs a restaurant and popular gym in Soho, which must have cost him a packet and his story of getting lucky on the race track smells fishy. Nothing either the police or Inland Revenue could disprove. So they decide to pay Tibball's establishments a visit and, years later, what happened there would flash across the mind's eye of Travers "as if a film of that evening had miraculously been run off," but the two-chapter prologue doesn't end there.
Several months later, Jewle calls Travers to tell him about a recent robbery, "one of those wages snatches," but the handkerchief obscuring one of the robber's faces slipped and was recognized as Tibball's general factotum, Frank Conward. Only problem is that has an alibi provided by his employers daughter, Gloria. But the case apparently came to an unexpected close the Elmhurst robbery. Louis Speer is an Italian-born, naturalized British jeweler who came to England following Mussolini's rise to power to continue his "modest but high-class manufacturing business," which often brought him to mainland Europe to buy stones. Tibball and Conward knew Speer had been in Antwerp and expected him to bring back a parcel of stones. So they broke into the house, coshed the elderly Speer and picked open the safe, but all they found was "a certain amount of cash and some oddments of jewellery worth about three hundred pounds." And, while trying to escape, their getaway car collides with a telegraph pole. Conward got out of the wreck unharmed, but he got caught that same day and eventually sentenced to four years in prison. Tibball didn't survive the crash. That effectively closes the case even though some questions remained unanswered. Who was the mysterious fence at the back of the diamond snatching business? What happened to the money and scant jewelry from the Elmhurst job?
Three years come and go, Travers is contacted by Speer's daughter and American son-in-law, Carlotta and Harvey Dawson. After the robbery, a very shaken Speer packed up and moved to the United States with Carlotta where she met her husband. Now her father has passed away and told on his deathbed there had been more to the robbery than he told, because he had a collection of antique jewelry in the house with a combined value somewhere in "the neighbourhood of forty thousand pounds." The collection belonged to a very well-known family and Speer had agreed to make paste duplicated, which is why he had to secretly pay the family out of his own pocket following the robbery. However, the loot was never recovered and Conward must have cached it somewhere, anywhere between Elmhurst and Liverpool, covering an area "well over a hundred miles" and "maybe with twists and turns" – like a needle in a haystack. Conward is to be released from prison in ten days' time. What they want is Travers to tail Conward when he gets out to see if he goes to the hidden cache.
This is the point in the story where The Case of the Treble Twist becomes a little unusual in both plot-structure and storytelling. Travers takes on the case, sort of, but uses the ten days before Conward is released to have a busman's holiday and takes that time to make leisure inquiries into the old robberies and the people involved. Only to make his final decision on whether to take case or defer it to someone else when Conward comes out of prison. So all he does to do is a little fact collecting and wool-gathering while he visiting the old crime scenes, interviewing people who were either involved or in the neighborhood and retracing steps as he constructs possible scenarios ("it's no use finding a theory and not working it out"). And without any new crimes, like more robberies or a murder, there's no immediate need to find all the answers. Travers later admitted to Jewle that he had been merely amusing himself "in a very shameless way," which blinded him to the serious proportions the case was morphing into as the zero hour of Conward's release drew closer. Not until someone goes missing and a gruesome murder is discovered is that Travers begins to pick at the double-crosses that developed into a treble twist over the years in earnest.
I suppose my summation can come across to some as a slow, meandering detective novel lacking any urgency or interesting crime until the final act, but The Case of the Treble Twist is a short, surprisingly fast-paced mystery with Bush taking pleasure in toying with his readers. I mean, Travers suggesting (ROT13) gur cbffvovyvgl bs n guveq zna evtug nsgre vagebqhpvat gur orneqrq Uneirl Qnjfba vzzrqvngryl znqr zr fhfcvpvbhf bs jub npghnyyl qvrq va gung pne penfu. Pbhyq vg or gur guveq, haxabja zna unq orra vqragvsvrq nf Gvoonyy naq gur Qnjfbaf jrer npghnyyl Gvoonyy naq uvf qnhtugre. Naq qvqa'g gur fgbel zragvba fbzrjurer gurl unq frcnengr orqebbzf. Ohg pbhyq fbzrbar punatr gung zhpu va whfg guerr lrnef? Fvpxarff pbhyq qb vg. But you can't completely discard the possibility as Bush pulled similar vzcrefbangvba fghagf before. Successfully putting me on the wrong track until the story reminded me of that small, but important, detail.
Even though the only flashy thing about the plot is the stolen jewelry, The Case of the Treble Twist has enough, old-school detective interest between Travers busman's holiday and the unraveling of the treble twist – all done in a very discreet, unassuming way. The kind of discreteness you can expect from an organization like the Broad Street Detective Agency!
So, on a whole, The Case of the Treble Twist stands as yet another one of Bush's first-class and classy detective novels from his 1950s periods, which naturally differ enormously from his 1930s or even '40s output. Bush tried to keep a flicker of the Golden Age going during a time when nearly all of his contemporaries had either retired or passed away. I think Bush proved he was the most successful of his generation at adapting the traditional detective story to the changes and upheavals of the post-war world without compromising, or demolishing, every single thing that makes good crime-and detective fiction. Trimmed down plots, more emphasis on characterization and a little more grounded in reality? Yes. But most of them turn out to be really good, classy and trim detective stories. The Case of the Treble Twist is a good, old-fashioned one at that!