A review of The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude
1936 was an annus mirabilis in Golden Age detective fiction which is great for the readers but makes it difficult for a novel which would be classed as well above average in most other years to gain the recognition it deserves. John Bude, the nom de plume of Ernest Elmore, has long fallen out of fashion, but in my experience, he writes solid, unpretentious, enjoyable novels that are well thought out and executed. Although not as dramatic or flashy as the better-known works of some of his immediate contemporaries, they make for a satisfying read. The Sussex Downs Murder, originally published in 1936 and now reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, is a case in point.
Bude gives an insight into what he considered the principal components of a good detective novel when his go-to detective, (now) Superintendent Meredith tells a crime writer, Aldous Barnet, that it should be “possible, plausible, and not crammed with a lot of nice coincidences and “flashes of intuition””. This might seem to have been a hostage to fortune as the plot turns on two instances of what even the most charitable of readers would consider to be nice coincidences. How astonishing is it that a piece of human bone should turn up in a sack of lime at the garden of an anatomy professor? How amazing is it that two criminals should go about their unlawful business at night in the same quiet country lane on the Sussex Downs?
Certainly, Meredith cannot be accused of relying on flashes of intuition. He is a hard-working, thorough policeman who follows each clue, particularly the shoal of red herrings that Bude throws in his way, to their logical conclusion before moving on to the next. What triggers the resolution, a clue gained from looking at an ancestral portrait, may also be said to have a whiff of intuition about it but it is the culmination of a number of clues that have been sprinkled through the narrative.
What I particularly like about Bude is that he has a very distinct sense of place and portrays the terrain of the area in which he sets his novel with affection. There is also a gentle humour which pervades his narrative, especially when witnesses are recounting their tales. His portrayal of Meredith shows the detective warts and all, grumpy when things go wrong, longing for his wife’s cooking and taking inspiration from his son’s comments at the dinner table.
As for the story itself, it concerns two farming brothers, John and William Rother. John announces he is going on holiday to Harlech, but the following morning his blood-stained cap and abandoned car are found a few miles away. The presumption is that of foul play. It was the talk of the village that John was overly familiar with William’s wife. William had no satisfactory alibi for the time around the time of the assault on John, shown as 9.55pm on the car’s clock. Was he responsible for the murder? Why, though, did John use half a gallon of petrol to get to a spot less than four miles from the farm?
Conveniently, there is a lime kiln on the farm and body parts are discovered in the lime distributed to local customers. They make a near complete skeleton but where is the skull? William’s body is then found complete with suicide note. The injuries, though, are inconsistent with the theory that he threw himself off the cliff edge. Was William murdered? And what part has the eccentric entomologist who discovered the abandoned car to play in the story?
Eventually, Meredith makes sense of it all, warding off the threat of having to hand the case over to Scotland Yard. Bude’s triumph is in producing an excellent, entertaining read out of it all.