One of the most exciting recent publishing ventures for lovers of the Golden Age of crime fiction has been the British Library Crime Classics series of reprints.It’s been so popular that titles are being published ahead of schedule. My copy of John Bude’s Sussex Downs Mystery arrived last week although it wasn’t due to be published until early next year. If I were being frivolous, I’d say it was the beautifully nostalgic cover art that’s selling the series but that wouldn’t be enough on its own. On the strength of the books I’ve read so far, it has just as much to do with the content which is a real treat for anyone who’s looking for a new Golden Age mystery author.
The Cornish Coast Murder was the first of 30 books by John Bude (the pseudonym of Ernest Carpenter Elmore). It’s a traditionally plotted mystery enhanced by the evocative setting & the mix of amateur & professional detectives. The story begins with the Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St Michael’s-on-the-cliff, Boscawen, sitting by the fire waiting for his friend, Doctor Pendrill, to arrive for their traditional weekly dinner. Every Monday night, the two friends divide the contents of a box of library books, every one of them mysteries. On this evening, though, a phone call for Doctor Pendrill interrupts the evening. Julius Tregarthan has been found shot dead in his study.
Tregarthan’s house, Greylings, is only a short distance away & the doctor & Reverend Dodd arrive on the scene to find Tregarthen’s niece, Ruth, who found the body, shocked & upset. Mr & Mrs Cowper, housekeeper & odd job man, are the only servants. None of them seem to have heard anything but a thunderstorm overhead may have masked the sound of the shot or shots as three bullets have been fired, as it seems, from the cliff path outside the study window. Local constable Grouch arrives soon after followed by Inspector Bigswell from the County Police. Tregarthan seemed to have no enemies although he was a secretive man. He didn’t get on well with his niece as it seemed he disapproved of her friendship with local writer & war veteran, Ronald Hardy. On the night of the murder, they had quarrelled at dinner & Ruth had left the house, returning some time later to find her uncle dead. Ruth’s behaviour since the murder is evasive & suspicious but is she trying to hide something that incriminates herself or is she trying to protect someone else? When Ronald Hardy & his revolver go missing on the very same night & it emerges that Tregarthan had just confronted him about his relationship with Ruth, he becomes the number one suspect. Then there’s Ned Salter, local “black sheep”, who was seen arguing with Tregarthen on the day of the murder about the eviction of his family while he was in jail.
The Inspector whistled. He couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Ruth Tregarthen? Ronald Hardy? Ned Salter? Which? they were all under suspicion. They all had a motive for the murder. They had all quarrelled with Tregarthan a few hours before his death. The puzzle was assuming gargantuan proportions. No sooner had the Inspector assembled a few bits to his satisfaction, when the puzzle altered shape, with all the startling inconsequence of a landscape in Alice in Wonderland.
I loved The Cornish Coast Murder. The Cornish village setting is beautifully drawn &, as it turns out, integral to the solution of the mystery. Reverend Dodd is a clever, intuitive detective who comes up with some vital insights with his practical knowledge as well as his insights into the hearts of his parishioners. I’m not sure a Police Inspector would have taken a parish priest into his confidence quite as readily as Inspector Bigswell does here but it’s very well done & he certainly wouldn’t have come up with the solution without him. There’s plenty of routine police work too which I always enjoy reading about.
Martin Edwards has written an informative Introduction for this edition which gives some background on the writer. A series of mysteries set in the English countryside was very unusual for the 1930s when London was the setting used by most writers. We’re used to mysteries set in cities, towns & villages all over the United Kingdom from Ann Cleeves’ Shetlands to Edwards’s own Lake District series &, of course, the murder capital of England, Midsomer, but it wasn’t so common during the Golden Age. I’m so pleased to have had a chance to read John Bude & I have two more of his books on the tbr shelves.