Tag Archives: Christopher Bush

The Trail Of The Three Lean Men

A review of The Trail of the Three Lean Men by Christopher Bush

By the time The Trail of The Three Lean Men was published in 1932, Christopher Bush had given up his full-time employment as a teacher to concentrate on his developing writing career. This book is one of the rarest of his books, not helped by the fact that he chose to publish under the nom de plume of Noel Barclay, and it has been rescued from obscurity by Dean Street Press, for which they are to be congratulated. It may be that Bush did not want to distract from his now established brand of Ludovic Travers’ murder mysteries.

This is altogether a different book, more of an adventure story or a thriller in the John Buchan mould, albeit without the jingoism, or à la Eric Ambler without the finesse and psychological tautness. It is an engaging enough tale and there is more than enough to keep the reader entertained but it does not hit the heights of the masters of the genre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that it is narrated in the first person. Our guide is Don Temple, a man down on his luck who is lured, partly against his will and his better judgment, into a foreign caper with a gang in the imaginary European country of Levasque. In a thriller the reader can expect that the protagonists will experience moments of danger when their lives are in peril. Having your lead character recount the tale after the event takes away a lot of the dramatic tension as the reader can only assume that their narrator has survived their ordeal.

Short of funds Temple visits a newspaper friend of his in an attempt to secure a position. Their conversation turns to the legendary journalist, Tom Varlow, who has disappeared but who could make a story out of any seemingly random event. Looking out of the window, they see three lean men of various heights walking down the street and Temple accepts the challenge to follow them and write a story about them. Some dropped travel documents tell him that the motley crew of Prargent, Spider, Marcel together with their boss, Gimbolt whose real is revealed as Larkin, and a mysterious Mr Lewis are going to Levasque and he duly follows them.

The gang become suspicious of his attentions, not unsurprisingly, for which he earns a blow on the head and given an ultimatum to join them. Despite not knowing precisely what their game is, Temple agrees and masquerades as Prargent’s valet. The gang’s mission is to assassinate the dastardly Destordi who assassinated Larkin’s father in the States and has fled to Levasque where there is no extradition treaty.

During his time in Levasque, Temple witnesses a murder and an assassination attempt, for which he is arrested, frequents the Café Granard where he meets the enigmatic Feuermann, who is employed by Destordi, and an English chanteuse, Lucy, with whom, inevitably, he falls in love. Destordi is holed up in a well-protected house and after the gang’s original plan, suggested by Temple, of campaigning for a change in extradition laws fails spectacularly, they have to resort to more direct methods.

They employ an ingenious method to break into the house, and there is a shootout, increasing the body count by another four, Lucy, who had been held hostage, is rescued, and the true identity of Feuermann is revealed. There is an element of “and they all lived happily after” to the ending as Temple makes his fortune, and gets his girl, by which time the journalistic side of the tale has long been forgotten.

The book had its moments and was written with some verve, but Bush has written far better, and I got the sense that this was something he wanted to get out of his system. One for the completist.

Shadows Before

A review of Shadows Before by Dorothy Bowers

This is the second of Dorothy Bowers’ Inspector Pardoe mystery murders, originally published in 1939 and now reissued by Moonstone Press. I found it less accessible than her debut novel, Postscript to Poison, and it has quite a complicated plot. Structurally, it was reminiscent of a Christopher Bush novel with the reader fed a series of seemingly unrelated sequences – it opens with a series of letters and then a second section in which we follow Aurelia Brett as she is interviewed and offered the role of companion to Catherine Weir – which only make sense and complete the picture as the book reaches its denouement.

And what a finale it is. Through all the highways and byways of the plot Bowers manages to turn the story on its head and come up with a solution many of her readers would not have seen coming. It rescues what otherwise would have been a rather pedestrian novel.

It is another tale of poisoning, Catherine Weir the initial victim. She is suffering from what would nowadays be diagnosed as dementia, needs supervision and is taken to rambling around the countryside collecting plants which she makes into a herbal tea concoction. One night someone slips some arsenic into it and its goodnight, Catherine. Who the culprit was is the task of Inspector Pardoe, Bower’s worthy police detective to discover, and he soon realises that there are a number of suspects who, for various reasons, may have been sufficiently motivated to do away with the old woman.

The Weirs had only moved into Spanwater, a country house set in a remote corner of the Cotswolds favoured by Romanies and Oxford dons, two years previously, having had to leave their previous residence under somewhat of a cloud after Matthew Weir, a professor, had been acquitted, somewhat to the surprise of many, of the charge of poisoning his sister-in-law. That his wife should now have been poisoned is surely more than an unfortunate coincidence.

Inheritance, inevitably, features highly as a motive. Catherine is wealthy but her wealth is subject to a tontine-like will, always an open invitation to murder, and how much Matthew will inherit, who is strapped for cash with the prospect of funding the studies of his nephew and niece looming large, is dependent upon whether a young relative, who disappeared to Australia with a dance troupe several years ago, is still alive.

Nick Terris, the nephew, is an enthusiastic supporter of euthanasia, perhaps putting his aunt out of her misery was a supreme act of kindness, and Matthew’s brother, Augustus, is strapped for the cash needed to keep his literary magazine afloat. Outside of the family, there are some odd servants, not least Mord, the butler-cum-manservant, and the religious fanatic, Ms Kingdom, who particularly has it in for a neighbour, Alice Gretton. Gretton has mysteriously disappeared, and Mrs Kingdom helpfully reports that every time Catherine visited Gretton, her health deteriorated.

Inspector Pardoe, Bowers’ sleuth, ably assisted by Sergeant Salt, the perfect foil to the more prosaic theories of his boss, set out to solve the mystery. Amidst yet another poisoning and an accident when the sterring mechanism of a car is tampered with, it becomes clear that Alice Gretton holds the key to the whole thing. What has happened to her and who was she? The answers to these questions produce an astonishing result.

Once I had got into the book, I found it entertaining enough and it was well written and well-paced. There was enough in it to persuade to continue following the adventures of Pardoe.

The Case Of The Bonfire Body

A review of The Case of the Bonfire Body by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush had a long and prolific writing career, publishing sixty-three adventures featuring his amateur sleuth, Ludovic Travers, stretching from 1926 to 1968. I am following the series in chronological order and The Case of the Bonfire Body, also going by the title of The Body in the Bonfire, is the fifteenth, originally published in 1936 and reissued by Dean Street Press. This is one of the better books in the series with Bush excelling himself in developing a mystery which twists and turns and leaves the reader in doubt as to whodunit until the end.

Seasoned Bush aficionados will recognise his habit of introducing seemingly random and unconnected events into his stories, often towards the beginning of the tale and sometimes in the form of a prologue, the relevance of which only becomes apparent as the solution unfolds. Travers’ glee at securing a rare Limerick Crown and his encounter and act of generosity towards a match-seller down on his luck are cases in point. Bush is also not averse to showing Travers’ human fallibility. He is not an omniscient sleuth. In this case the solution is staring him in the face, but he does not have the wit to realise it until much later on.

One of the delights of the Travers series is the amateur sleuth’s relationship with the “General”, Wharton of the Yard. They work well together, sparring off each other, Wharton’s feet firmly planted on the ground while allowing Travers to engage in his flights of fancy. Bush takes time to develop Wharton’s character in this story, and the effort pays off, giving some human warmth to what might otherwise have been a grisly story.

Death, obviously, is central to murder mystery stories, but in the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction the murders tend to be inventive and frequent, but rarely linger on the goriness of the body. I have always wondered whether the horrors of the First World War were still raw in the contemporary readership. They wanted entertainment, the intellectual challenge of working out what happened, but were not too keen to have the goriness of the business brought into their front room, thank you very much. Here, though, Bush bucks the trend.

A body is found in a bonfire, the head, and hands brutally hacked off, and he does not spare the details in a vivid portrayal in what is an excellent opening to the story. In London a doctor is found stabbed to death in his surgery at around the same time, with suggestions too that he may have committed murder. Are the two cases linked, why and how?

After such a great beginning, there is an air of inevitability that the pace drops as the investigations get mired in theorising as to whether three people are involved in what is a case of the consequences of thieves falling out or whether there is a mysterious fourth person, dubbed X. It is difficult to write much about the the case without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that there is more to matters than meets the eye and not everything is as it appears to be. A down and out fished out of the Thames with Travers’ missing Limerick Crown secreted in his boot opens the sleuth’s eyes to what is going on.

The book ends with Bush in fine form and while for the purist the intricacies of the plot rely too much on requiring the reader to suspend belief, it is an enjoyable piece of entertainment and well worth a read.

The Case Of The Monday Murders

A review of The Case of the Monday Murders by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush is one of those murder mystery writers from the so-called Golden Age who had slipped into obscurity but is undergoing a bit of a renaissance thanks to the sterling efforts of those behind Dean Street Press who have reissued the series for a modern readership to discover. The Case of the Monday Murders is the fourteenth novel in Bush’s Ludovic Travers series and was originally published in 1936.

The Detection Club was formed by the leading lights of British crime fiction in 1930. Membership was by invitation and Bush did not join until 1937, Curtis Evans’ excellent introduction informs us. Forearmed with this information it is not hard to see that Ferdinand Pole’s Murder League, a publicity seeking circle of crime writers, is a take-off of the Club and that Travers’ disdain for the League – he is now a crime writer having just published Kensington Gore – may mirror Bush’s feelings. If so, why did he change his mind? Was the novel some kind of cathartic exercise which, once out of the way, convinced him that it might not be as bad as he feared?

Bush also has the newspaper industry in his sights. The journalists at the Evening Blazon are looking for scoops and sensationalism and willing to give Pole the oxygen of publicity by printing his letter in which he claimed that thirteen unsolved murders since 1918 had been committed on a Monday. Was it the work of the same person and would there be more Monday murders? Was there something in it or was it just Pole seeking publicity for himself and his League? The journalists did not care as it made good copy and sold papers.

Pole is an interesting character and floats the idea, later pondered by Richard Hull in Excellent Intentions, of whether it was ever justifiable to kill someone whose removal would benefit society, a thought that horrify us now but one that tapped into the zeitgeist. Inevitably, an economist who had become a recluse after allegations of paedophilia surfaced, T P Luffham, is found dead in his flat, murdered, on a Monday of course. Then on the following Monday, an actress who seems to have successfully covered up her past is murdered. The finger of suspicion seems to be firmly pointed in one direction until they too are murdered, although not on a Monday.

The investigations are led by Wharton of the Yard aka The General and Travers. Their initial scepticism as to whether there is anything in the Monday murder theory gives way to absolute conviction as to the identity of the culprit. What gets them on to the right track in this tale of retribution and murky pasts is a mixture of tidbits picked up in conversations, the phenomenal and uncanny gift of recollection on the part of Palmer, Travers’ man, and the mystery of the disappearing parrot, Charlie.

More could have been made of Charlie, there are too few suspects to make it a challenging mystery and the clues to motivation are more in Travers’ head than on the page. A slip of the tongue by the culprit gives the game away and leads to a thrilling, if somewhat underpowered, denouement, provoked by Travers’ penchant for taking risks and putting himself in harm’s way, a characteristic that leads to a severing of bonhomie, soon patched up, between the stolid Wharton and the more mercurial amateur sleuth.

It is a good read, entertaining enough, with some well-drawn characters, but not one of the best of the series.        

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.