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.