A review of The Case of the Unfortunate Village by Christopher Bush
The premise of many a murder story is a character who preens themselves with the thought that they have planned the perfect murder. Inevitably, though, they leave some loose ends and are hoist by their own petard by trying to be too clever for their own good. My immediate thought, when I had finished The Case of the Unfortunate Village, the eighth in Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers series from 1932 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, was that this was a case of an author being too clever for his own good. The result was the original meaning of a curate’s egg.
The story is a version of that Manichaean struggle between good and evil played out in the bucolic village of Bableigh. To emphasise the point Bush has taken a leaf out of John Bunyan’s book by giving some of the residents of the village names that indicate their profession, for example the vicar is called Parish, a sculptor Mould, or their chief points of their character, the Mesdames Faithful and Frail. Travers’ guide to the affairs of the village is a part-time poet by the name of Dryden. There are so many characters that the reader is grateful for this rather anachronistic form of assistance.
Rather like the infinitely superior Cut Throat, the genesis of the story is rooted in an actual event, reports of witchcraft blighting the Finnish village of Helsingfors the previous year and suspicions of the involvement of an Englishman. Over three months there have been several strange deaths, seemingly accidental, in the village and several of the residents have experienced a change in character. There appears to be something in the air. Is it a form of black magic?
What brings matters to a head is the death of Yeomans. It looks like suicide, but why was his dog killed and why was its corpse buried and then later thrown into Mould’s garden? What is the significance of the sudden bold display of Forget-me-nots in Mould’s previously neglected garden? Why is the sculptor creating an image of Lucifer?
Dryden is concerned about Yeoman’s death and calls on his friend, Travers, for assistance. Travers persuades him to enlist the help of John Franklin, the head of private investigations at Durangos. The pair, sometimes in tandem and often taking different approaches to the events in the village, try to make sense of the trail of unexplained occurrences and establish whether there is a common thread running through a collection of random events.
Along the way, they uncover financial fraud and an electric wireless set that initially malfunctions and then proves fatal to its owner. The tampering of bicycle brakes leads to its rider meeting his maker when he runs into a wall and a consumptive little girl falls down a well. There is a common thread running through these bizarre incidents which Travers spots and brings to a decisive finale.
Bush’s conceit is to base his book on a parable that appears in Thomas Parnell’s The Hermit and repeated, albeit with a twist, in Voltaire’s Zadig. It is unclear whether a contemporary reader of Bush’s would have any deeper insight into these works than I had, but a working knowledge of them might have made understanding what was going on a little easier. I got there in the end, thanks, in part, to Travers’ summary in the final chapter, and while I admired the ingenuity of Bush’s idea, it all seemed a little too clever by half.
It was a story worth persevering with, but Bush wrote many more satisfying stories. It is not difficult to see why this book was phenomenally rare even after publication.