A review of Murder at Fenwold by Christopher Bush
Also known as The Death of Cosmo Revere, this is the fourth of Bush’s Ludovic Travers series, there are sixty-three in all. Published originally in 1930 it has been reissued for a modern audience to discover by Dean Street Press. I found it hard going in places, more so than with the other of Bush’s novels I have read, and once I had got to the end, I wondered why that was.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the pace of the narrative is quite variable. It starts off at a cracking pace with the narration of a strange and seemingly unrelated contretemps in London and then the death of the local squire and owner of Fenwold Hall, Cosmo Revere, who seems to have been killed by a falling tree which he was felling late at night. The book then slows right down as Travers and John Franklin, the head of the private detective agency at Durangos, who have been appointed to dig into what has been going on at Fenwold by Revere’s solicitor, proceed with their investigations before revving up again towards the end.
The structure of the book is not helped by Travers’ and Franklin’s roles. They are acting undercover, there is no police investigation as such as the authorities are convinced that Revere’s death was a tragic accident, and have to ferret out information while maintaining their façade of master (Travers) and confidential servant (Franklin). It also does not help that Travers and Franklin approach the problem from different angles and keep much from each other as they pursue their pet theories. This makes for a tangled narrative.
The plot also seems unnecessarily complicated. Naturally, Revere’s death is not all that it seems. Some tell-tale yellow sand and the cut of the felled tree suggests that the official version of events is incorrect. We are treated to a discourse on tree felling, complete with diagrams, to demonstrate that Revere had not been the architect of his own demise. The truth is even weirder. He was crushed by a stone, an extraordinarily bizarre and overly convoluted way to hasten his meeting with his maker.
That is not all, though. There are some odd things going on inside the house, principally the replacement of some of the valuable books, artefacts and objets d’art at the house with copies. Who is responsible and has it anything to do with the murder of Revere. An important witness is also done away with. Signalling, a hastily constructed rock garden, a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals and the mysterious duo of Castleton and Carter, never seen together, an invalid nurse and an omnipresent vicar all add spice to the mix. And does that strange encounter in London provide a clue to the real identity and character of one of the protagonists?
Despite my concerns with the book, there are some considerable saving graces. Bush writes with wit and also with feeling for a country life that even then was fast disappearing. It may be seen as a traditional country house murder but Bush goes out of his way to extend the trope and to imbue it with his love for the English countryside and its way of life. That he struggles to pull it off should not detract from that laudable ambition.
There was enough in the book to persuade me to continue with the series. I just hope that the next one is more satisfying.