A review of The Case of the Dead Shepherd by Christopher Bush
Before concentrating on writing full-time in 1931, Christopher Bush was a schoolmaster and he must have hated if it, if this book, the twelfth in his Ludovic Travers series, published in 1934 and reissued by Dean Street Press, is anything to go by. The Case of the Dead Shepherd, also known more curiously and inaccurately in America as The Tea Tray murders, is set a rather grim educational establishment, Woodgate Hill County School and the self-proclaimed shepherd is the unpleasant and deeply unpopular headmaster, Lionel Twirt.
Death visits Woodgate Hill twice in the space of minutes. Firstly, a history master, Charles Tennent, is found crawling on his and hands and knees, clutching a scientific catalogue, in his death throes having ingested some poison. Then the headmaster, late for his appointments, is found dead in the shrubbery with his head caved in. Are the murders connected and who did them? When it is established that Tennent had ingested a poison, oxalic acid, an unusual substance in murder mysteries, that was placed in a sugar bowl on a tea tray laid out for Twirt does the thought occur that Twirt may have been the intended victim of both murders.
There are many on the school staff who had reason to hate Twirt and discussions had occurred in the staffroom as to ways in which he could be despatched. Of the ancillary staff, Vincent, the groundsman, was always on the verge of dismissal and Flint, the caretaker, had gone missing at the time of the murders. Daisy Quick, the put-upon school secretary and daughter of the local police Inspector, had the opportunity and what about the visitors to the school, the governor, Mr Sandyman, and the mysterious Mela Ram?
The General, Superintendent Wharton of the Yard, invites Travers to help in the investigations. Usually in cases where a talented amateur and the professional police are involved in an investigation, they are in competition, reluctant to share clues and discoveries, with, inevitably, the amateur turning up trumps and showing the police up to be blundering oafs. Here, though, Wharton and Travers work in perfect harmony, and share the honours in solving the mystery.
Indeed, it is Wharton who works out why and by whom Tennant was poisoned, while Travers unmasks the culprit who caused Twirt’s demise, courtesy of an idea taken from a Chesterton story, and with a little help from his manservant, Palmer. The solution to the poisoning incident is particularly neat and took me by surprise. I had worked out who had murdered Twirt, there is being helpful and just a bit too helpful, but the how was intriguing.
Much of the investigations centred around the alibis of the many suspects at around the time of the two murders. When very precise timings need to be established and where there is no shortage of suspects, it can make for tedious reading in less skilful hands than Bush’s. Even so, those sections devoted to establishing alibis are a tad pedestrian in comparison with the rest of the book, especially when the reader realises that it may all be part of an elaborate red herring.
Nonetheless, the book is impressively well-plotted with no loose ends – even the roles of Sandyman, Flint, and Mela Ram are cleared up – and underlying the malevolent atmosphere of the school we find blackmail plots and overcharging. Handling a large cast list of potential suspects can be tricky, but Bush carries it all off with aplomb.
I enjoyed the book and look forward to seeing Travers and Wharton working in tandem again.