The Case Of The Chinese Gong

A review of The Case of the Chinese Gong by Christopher Bush

Thirteen, lucky for some, unlucky for others. Fortunately, the thirteenth novel in Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers series, originally published in 1935 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, sees the author on top form. The result is a cracking story, one of the best I have read so far.

The setup is conventional, a story set in a country house and the murder victim, Hubert Greeve, a rich man who takes delight in humiliating and taunting his nephews, all of whom in their different ways, have financial difficulties and would welcome some assistance. As far as it is known, all four would profit by way of inheritance from the death of their uncle.  

Bush takes time and care in painting the plight of the nephews. They are not spendthrifts, living to excess on the prospect of an inheritance but rather victims of the economic downturn that blighted the economy in the early 1930s. One of the four, Martin, is so desperate that he attempts to gas himself, saved only by the timely intervention of one of his cousins, Tom Bypass. Unusually for stories of the genre which seem to take place in an alternative universe, Bush is alive to the financial turmoil of the age and sees it, rightly, as a suitable backdrop for a murder mystery.

Martin’s problems seem to bring the nephews’ plight into sharp focus and Tom ominously asks Martin whether he had tried to kill the wrong man. The seeds are sown in the reader’s mind that the only way to improve their financial lot is to murder the old man. A suitable occasion, the annual gathering to celebrate Greeve’s birthday, soon presents itself. On the scene, as well as the nephews, are Greeve’s solicitor and the butler.

As the butler strikes the gong – curiously it is in the room where the guests are congregated, except for one who is a summer house in the garden – Greeve falls down dead, apparently shot although no one was quite clear or saw what exactly had happened. Did the shot come from inside the room or from outside? Who fired the fatal shot?

Ludovic Travers accompanies the local Chief Constable, Major Tempest, to investigate. They soon discover motive aplenty, but also seemingly cast-iron alibis. The scene in the drawing room is recreated several times with the principal actors standing or seated in the precise spots they occupied when Greeve was killed. Curiously, on the evening before the murder just as the butler beat the gong, all the participants are in precisely the same positions and Martin dropped a card just as he did when Greeve was shot. Was this a dress rehearsal for the murder itself?

What could have descended into a routine investigation of alibis in a desperate attempt to solve an impossible murder becomes something altogether more convoluted and ingenious, firstly with the emergence of Greeve’s sister and the suggestion that her husband is blackmailing the old man to recognise her in the will. This leads to the discovery that there is a second, later, will and another solicitor who was acting for Greeve.

However, Bush has another, greater, trick up his sleeve when Travers, following up some recollections that the butler had and some theatrical lines of enquiry, realised how the murder was committed and, therefore, who the killer was. So ingenious is the method, although I remain to be convinced it could be carried out successfully in the heat of the moment, that it is a surprise that Bush did not make more of it. We are all suckers for a spot of legerdemain. Then again, he is not as flashy a writer as some of his contemporaries, a reason, perhaps, why he fell into obscurity.

If you like a well-written, well-constructed murder mystery, this excellent book should be at the top of your to be read pile.

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