The Cheltenham Square Murder – John Bude
One of the most successful publishing stories of recent years is that of the British Library Crime Classics imprint. The early titles appeared in 2012, although the series really took off in 2014 when the books began appearing in striking and beautiful covers featuring vintage images. With introductions by crime writer and guru Martin Edwards, the imprint reprints lost British crime classics from the 20th century and the books seem to have been enthusiastically received, not only by crime aficionados, but also by the general public.
One of the stars of the range is John Bude; I’ve read three of his novels so far (reviews here, here and here), and it’s something of a mystery as to why this prolific and talented author fell out of favour. His stories always feature a specific location and I was really keen to read the latest reissue, “The Cheltenham Square Murder” (first published in 1937) as I lived in the Spa Town in my teens! Superintendent Meredith, Bude’s protagonist, is still based in Sussex (as he was in the last Bude I read) but is spending time with his friend, the author Aldous Barnet. The latter is staying in his sister’s house in Cheltenham, while the lady is away – No. 8 Regency Square, to be precise. As Barnet and Meredith are collaborating on a book, this seems the ideal time to visit – but this turns out to be no holiday for Meredith as shortly after his arrival one of the residents of the square is murdered in a most unusual way – by an arrow fired through an open window and straight into his head!
Regency Square is tenanted by an interesting bunch of characters, all marked out on a neat map at the front of the book (I do *love* a crime novel with a map in it!) There is Miss Boon, a single lady with a booming voice and a collection of dogs; the Wests, who have a troubled marriage; Rev. Matthews and his sister; another young couple, the Fitzgeralds, who are plagued by their neighbour, Captain Cotton, whom nobody likes. Then there is Mr. Buller, a slightly shady character, the spinster Misses Watts, Dr. Pratt (handily placed for when there are dead bodies to be inspected) and in the poshest house Sir William Whitcomb. And of course there are neighbourly conflicts, a rivalry about the felling of an elm tree in the square, problems with Miss Boon’s dogs and all the little irritations you’d expect in a closely packed residential area.
Fortunately for the residents, Meredith is on hand when the murder is discovered and even more fortunately the local inspector, Long, had heard of Meredith and is very keen on collaborating with him in solving the mystery. So the two sleuths set to investigating, and it seems as though there will be a limited field of enquiry as about half of the square’s residents are members of a local archery club. But there are alibis, and initially lack of motives. Although the detectives have their suspicions there’s no obvious, clear-cut answer. And then a second murder takes place which muddies the waters even more. Will Meredith and Long succeed in tracking down the killer, or is the Regency Square killer just too clever for them?
I’ve loved all the Bude books I’ve read so far (I really must catch up with “Death on the Riviera”, the only BL reissue of his I’ve not read); and this book is no exception. In fact, I may have liked it the most of them all, but that could be because of a certain familiarity with the location! I did enjoy the mentions of the local landmarks like the Promenade and the Pittville Pump Room and the Rotunda, and I recall being very fond of Agatha Christie’s “The ABC Murders” because the first killing took place in Andover (where I grew up). However, putting that aside, this is a deeply enjoyable read – classic crime at its best. The murder is very clever, the twists expertly placed and although I had a slight glimmer of the solution, it was only slight and I hadn’t worked out most of the mystery. Bude is an engaging writer, and Meredith a well-rounded character; the latter is a straightforward policeman, thorough in his detecting but with flashes of brilliance, and Barnet and Long make excellent foils. I was particularly fond of Long, with his slightly countrified accent and down to earth attitude, and even he was allowed a fair share of the detecting, as well as providing a certain amount of levity in places – Bude’s happy to slip in a little wry humour now and then (as in this wonderful description of a boarding house sitting room and the landlady):
“This way, sir,” said Mrs. Black, deferentially piloting the Superintendent into the room with the aspidistra and bay-window, a room which smelt of soot, camphor and hair-rugs. Meredith was waved into a rigid, springless armchair draped with a large antimacassar. Mrs. Black edged herself primly onto a black horse-hair sofa, carefully avoiding the silk-covered cushions which adorned it.
I’ve deliberately been vague about the specifics of the murders and plots, because so much of the enjoyment here comes from each development and revelation as it comes – and I would hate to spoil this for anyone who’s going to read it (and I think you all should if you love classic crime). Really, I can’t fault this book; it was exactly what it sets out to be, a wonderful Golden Age police procedural in a lovely setting and with an engrossing and enjoyable mystery. If the BL series had done nothing else but bring John Bude’s work back into print, it would deserve plaudits; as it is, Bude is one of many successes of the British Library Crime Classics series; they make perfect comfort reading in a nasty world, and I really can’t wait to read another!