Tag Archives: Inspector Wharton

The Case Of The Three Strange Faces

A review of The Case of the Three Strange Faces by Christopher Bush

It is a curious thing, but when you are an amateur sleuth, death has a habit of following you around, as this tenth outing for Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers, first published in 1933 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, amply demonstrates. Having spent some time in the south of France recuperating, as you do, Travers is making his way back from Toulon to Marignac en route to London by train. He decides to travel second-class, as you meet a more interesting type of people.

Trains in general and railway carriages in particular are a favourite of murder mystery writers and it is easy to see why. They bring together a motley collection of characters into a confined space and compartment-style carriages limit the number of suspects and open up the opportunity for a locked room mystery. This is what we have here.

Amongst his travelling companions in his carriage, Travers finds that there are three who have distinctive and peculiar faces. One, Hunt, seems to be suffering from an outbreak of red spots necessitating his butler to come into the carriage to administer a lotion. Another, going by the name of Smith, always suspicious in these circumstances, seems very well sun tanned, although closer inspection shows that his tan is not the result of over exposure to the rays of la belle France but has come out of a bottle.

There are some rum goings-on in the carriage. A man, described as a Provencal, has parked himself outside the compartment door and seems to be on watch. During the night Smith passes out a Frenchman’s walking stick to the man. There is an unseemly scuffle involving the only woman in the carriage. Travers, when walking through the train, keeps bumping into another Englishman. Inevitably, two of Travers’ immediate travelling companions die, one stabbed through the heart with a hat pin, and the other poisoned.

How were the murders carried out and by whom? Were they connected or entirely separate incidents? What were Smith and the Provencal up to? Why was Hunt’s house burgled shortly after his butler and Travers had arrived back in England?

Travers finds himself under suspicion of the murders but his trump card is that his uncle is Commissioner of Police in Blighty and so he could not possibly have committed the foul deeds. It turns out that the Provencal is a senior French policeman and that the French couple were drug runners. But that still leaves the death of Hunt.

Inspector Wharton takes up the investigation of the case and Travers’ role is reduced to that of his faithful companion, adding a few pieces of sage advice from time to time. The plot is complicated, overly complicated it seemed to me, and after a bright opening the book seems to lose a lot of its impetus, descending into a rather ordinary tale of earnest investigation, a few red herrings, unearthing secrets from the past, before all the facts are pieced together to make a coherent whole.

Bush’s style is workmanlike and unpretentious, he keeps the story moving, he plays fair with the reader and there are moments of humour to be enjoyed. However, it is not one of his best as there are too many spinning plates, some of which could have profitably been left to crash to the ground and not compromised the integrity of what is a very strange, convoluted, and forced tale.

If you are not determined to read the whole series, it may be best to park this one in the sidings.

Dead Man’s Music

A review of Dead Man’s Music by Christopher Bush

This, the sixth outing of Christopher Bush’s amateur sleuth, Ludovic Travers, was originally published in 1931 and has been reissued for a modern readership to discover by Dean Street Press. The book starts off with a set of coincidences that stretch credulity. Travers almost has a road accident with a vehicle in which his old police chum, Inspector Wharton, is travelling. Wharton is in Sussex investigating a possible suicide. Travers tags along and not only does he know the cottage where the corpse is found but can also positively identify the victim, one Claude Rowe. I often find that with the set up of novels of this genre, it is best to suspend disbelief and take liberal pinches of salt.

Nevertheless, Travers’ arrival at the scene is his cue to give an account of his unusual encounter with Rowe, who had asked Durangos, for whom Travers works, to send someone to see him. During the course of a somewhat bewildering evening, Travers is asked to look at a collection of worthless pottery and to take particular notice of one piece, to talk about an old stock market fraud and to hear a tone poem written by Rowe, the manuscript of which Travers is told to hold in trust until the person to whom it should be given makes themselves known.    

Aficionados of early Bush – I am reading his books in order and so cannot comment on whether this trait continues in his later career – will realise that early on in the narrative there are a set of seemingly random and inexplicable events which, as the story progresses, gradually begin to make sense and hold vital clues to the mystery. Such is the case with Claude Rowe’s strange behaviour and random topics of conversation in his first meeting with Travers.

Inevitably, not everything is as it seems. Rowe did not commit suicide but was murdered. The musical score of the tone poem that so enraptured Travers when he heard it played, turns out to be gibberish, save for the first page. Bush, whose son became a composer, went to the trouble of reproducing the first page in the book. For those who can read music, I can’t, and are good at cracking codes may find that the score contains clues vital for solving the mystery. What ensues is a fast-paced, first class, clever and complicated story involving enigmatic music, disguise and recognition, a silent housekeeper, international gangs, and fraud with the odd bit of revenge and blackmail thrown in.

Wharton, Travers and John Franklin, the head of Private Investigations at Durangos, each in their own way contribute to the unravelling of the mystery. Franklin is a late arrival to the story and as seems to the norm tackles the more dangerous and international aspects of the case. Travers provides the flashes of inspiration necessary to move the case along and to sort through the shoal of red herrings that Bush has put in their way while Wharton’s major contribution comes from his phenomenal powers of recollection of previous cases and scandals. Between them they make for a formidable team and even the most sophisticated of criminals cannot elude them for long.

Readers look to Bush for a well plotted, fast moving story and he does not disappoint.      

Dancing Death

A review of Dancing Death by Christopher Bush

I have never held with the idea that you need to read a book classed as a Christmas mystery in the festive season. Dancing Death, the fifth in Bush’s 63-book Ludovic Travers series, initially published in 1931 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, is technically set around the New Year, but has all the hallmarks of a Yuletide murder story. The action is set in a country house, host to a fancy-dress party with the guests comprised of a motley collection of individuals, each with their own secrets or grievances, heavy snowfalls that cut the guests off, and the arrival of a mysterious stranger stranded in the snows, not forgetting three murders, the disabling of the lights and telephone and the disappearance of siphon of highly poisonous gas. That is more than enough for anyone to get their teeth into.

Fortunately, Ludovic Travers, amateur sleuth, and John Franklin, former Scotland Yard detective and now head of the private investigation department of Durangos, are amongst the guests and take charge of the situation until the roads can be cleared. Franklin does his best Captain Oates impersonation and heads out into the snows to get to the nearby village and a working telephone to summon the police. Inevitably, Travers’ old sparring partner, Superintendent Wharton, is allotted the role of leading the official investigations.       

During the night of the ball, the guests find that they have been relieved of some of their personal, portable possessions. Worst still, one of the guests, Mirabel Quest, an actress who seems to be dagger drawn with her sister, Mrs Fewne, another guest, is found under her bed, having been stabbed to death. Her brother-in-law, Fewne, a novelist, is found dead in the pagoda within the Hall’s grounds. It is assumed that he had a heart attack, his body grotesquely positioned as a result of his agonising death throes, but Travers is not convinced. Are the murders linked? Are the thefts linked to the murders? Was the stranded motorist, Crashaw, mixed up in at all?

It takes a third murder, that of a servant who had come into some money, for Travers to get a bit more clarity as to what was behind it all. What did she know and why was she killed? Travers concludes that all roads lead to Fewne, Why did the novelist, who had not gone out for weeks, suddenly travelled to London with Braishe, and why did he leave a piece of paper with the beginnings of a letter to the editor of The Times scrawled on it?

Between them, Travers and Wharton get to the bottom of a complex but neatly plotted and resolved mystery. The culprit is fairly self-evident around the two-thirds point of the story, as the focus distinctly shifts to proof and motive, unearthing an elaborate scheme and some surprising truths. Two things I picked up from the book – never change your allocated room and have a good look at the mattress wires when you look under a bed.

Bush, who writes with an easy flowing, slightly tongue-in-cheek style and not averse to a well-polished turn of phrase, plays fair with the reader. Indeed, the novel starts with a prologue in which Travers is asked what he wished he had known in order to solve the mystery. We are treated to four disparate scenes, the importance of each becoming apparent as the story progresses. Once again, my ignorance of the Scriptures counted against me.

An impressive book and much more than just another run of the mill Yuletide country house mystery.

Dead Man Twice

Dead Man Twice – Christopher Bush

This is the third in Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers series, originally published in 1930 and now reissued for a modern audience by Dean Street Press. It introduces us to the world of the gentleman boxer in the form of playboy pugilist, Michael France, who is about to have a crack at the World Heavyweight Championship and is the talk of the town.

John Franklin, the ex-Scotland Yarder who heads up the private investigation unit at Durangos Ltd, has been introduced to France’s charmed circle and is entranced. However, he is somewhat dismayed when the boxer contacts him to seek his advice about some threatening letters.  When he gets to the house at the appointed time, he and the shifty valet find the body of the butler, Somers, on the floor, presumably poisoned after drinking some whisky laced with cyanide. Beneath his body is a suicide note penned by France. France’s body is found in another room with a gunshot neatly through the centre of his forehead and a small, almost toy-like, gun by his side. Is this a double suicide, a suicide and a murder or a double murder?

Once again, this is a cleverly and intricately plotted mystery with France’s life and relationships with those in his close circle not all that meets the eye, providing several suspects with the motivation to do the boxer in. However, all have seemingly cast-iron alibis and much of the investigation is concerned with testing and breaking the alibis to unmask the culprit.

Leading the investigation for the police is Inspector Wharton who does much of the legwork in this case. Franklin’s knowledge of the suspects, although frankly sketchy as he had only recently made their acquaintance and his almost schoolboyish admiration for them all is a tad annoying, allows him to tag along and involve his friend, the amateur sleuth, Ludovic Travers.

As in the earlier two books Travers plays a low-key part and Wharton is, rightly, wary of allowing an oddball amateur to muddy the waters. Indeed, it is astonishing that any professional investigator would take kindly to the dabbling of an amateur. Unusually for a policeman in this type of fiction, Wharton excels in the investigation, proving himself to be determined, thorough and adaptable, able to adjust and set the right tone to suit the persona of the individual he is dealing with.  

However, as the investigation proceeds Wharton warms to Travers and recognises that his more intuitive approach and a readiness to think outside of the box can be immensely helpful. Indeed, it is a combination of Wharton’s hard graft and Travers’ intuition that finally cracks the case with Franklin somewhat surplus to requirements. It is not hard to see that as the series continues the Wharton-Travers combo will come into the ascendancy and the rather annoying Franklin will sail into the sunset.     

This was a well-considered, well-written novel that held the reader’s attention and although the list of suspects was rather small, Bush kept the solution to his ingeniously wrought mystery under wraps until the end. I found it a very clever and enjoyable book and cannot wait to read more of his works. Highly recommended.