Death in White Pyjamas/Death Knows no Calendar by John Bude

Back to comforting crime, with one of the big successes of the British Library Crime Classics series – John Bude. He was a respected writer in his time but became neglected in recent year; it’s been wonderful to see his works come back into print and I’ve enjoyed many of his books featuring his regular detective, Superintendant Meredith. However, the latest offering of his from the BL is a bumper volume containing two stand-alone mysteries and they were the perfect read during a recent cold and soggy weekend.

The first of the two, “Death in White Pyjamas”, was originally published in 1942; featuring an entertaining cast drawn from the world of the theatre, it’s set mainly around the country residence of Sam Richardson, a biscuit millionaire-turned-theatre owner. Together with his partner, the rather sinister Basil Barnes, he’s set up a highly successful cult theatre, The Beaumont; he provides the backing and Basil provides the art. During the summer recess, a number of cast and crew members are staying down at Old Knolle, including Angela Walsh, a beautiful and rather naive starlet; Willy Farnham, an ageing character actor; Clara Maddison, a veteran actess; and Deidre Lehaye, the glamorous and slightly mysterious stage designer. Inevitably, there are tensions (of an emotional and artistic nature) between the various visitors; and things get worse when Rudoph Millar, a young playwright (and also Clara’s nephew), visits to tout his latest work. The team approve, Angela is smitten, and Basil (who has designs on her) is consumed by jealousy. However, all this gets put to one side when a body is found in grounds, wearing white pyjamas; and the scene is set for an entertaining and twisty tale. Will the authorities, in the form of Inspector Harting and Sergeant Dane, be able to solve the puzzle?

They were poles apart: in looks, character, ideas, ambitions, everything. Where Sam was short, fat, bald and benign, Basil was tall, slender, sleek-haired and slightly sinister. Sam, apart from business in all its aspects, was a child. His simple faith in everybody was delightful, if expensive; for he could never listen to a hard-up story without putting his hand in his pocket. If Basil put his hand in his pocket you expected him to produce a revolver. Actually, he produced plays.

Death has no Calendar” (from 1944) steps into a different world, that of the murder of a talented woman artist. Married to a slightly ne’er-do-well figure who seems mainly to be sponging off of her, Lydia Arundel inspires strong emotions in those around her; including local farmer Stanley Hawkinge who adores her dumbly from a distance; the Rev. Swale-Reid, who has had some kind of unspecified brief encounter with her in the past which has left him emotionally scarred and tormented; and Major Boddy, a retired military man who admires her greatly but knows she’s not for him. Add into the mix Lady Dingle and her lisping niece Honoraria, the latter of whom has set her sights on Hawkinge; plus the slightly dubious houseboy Willis; and you get a very volatile situation. No seasoned reader of murder mysteries will be surprised when Lydia is found dead, apparently having shot herself. Her artist’s studio was locked from the inside, and there is no way anyone could have got into it; yet there are inconsistencies. It’s left to Major Boddy, aided by his loyal ex-batman Syd Gammon, to investigate; and the tale of what they uncover is unexpected to say the least!

It’s unusual, perhaps, to have two mysteries collected in one volume like this, but I’m certainly not complaining. The second one, in particular, is described as having been very hard to get hold of up until its reissue here, so it’s wonderful to see it back in print. And I have to confess to having spent a wonderful weekend relaxing with both of these stories, which are extremely diverting and entertaining.

Not sure if any of the country residences in the stories are like this one, but it’s rather jolly! (T. Raffles Davison (d. 1937), architectural illustrator / Public domain – via Wikimedia Commons)

One element I’d forgotten was just how funny a writer Bude can be. As Martin Edwards reminds us, in his informative introduction, these stories came out in wartime and Bude was no doubt writing with intent to divert and entertain. There’s plenty of wry humour, the characterisation is often broad and slightly caricatured, which raises a laugh, and there are some wonderfully witty lines. However, he often lapses into lyrical passages which really capture his time and setting, and these are lovely.

… the following Tuesday dawned bright and beautiful. As the hours advanced there descended on Beckwood, like an inverted shining cup, one of those peerless June days that transform the face of rural England into an earthly paradise. The scent of the Etoile d’Hollande was heavy on the still air and the bees were working in the clover fields. The red tiles of The Oasts threw off an aura of shimmering heat. A few birds piped languidly in the feathery branches of the conifers and peace, clear and perfect, seemed to have settled over the village.

As for the mysteries, I found that I sussed out a fair amont of “White Pyjamas” reasonably early on; the motivations weren’t difficult to divine, although the actual modus operandi and sequence of events wasn’t obvious and was very cleverly plotted by the author. He tied up the loose ends nicely, as well, which I always like; although the denouement was perhaps slightly foreshortened.

Even in these democratic days it demands great courage to tell a titled woman that she has a face like a horse.

As for “Calendar”, that flummoxed me a bit more; I was pretty sure I had a bit of an idea who the villain was, but the motives were less clear, and until the Major started discovering more about the murderer’s life I was as much in the dark as he was. And I had *no* idea how the murder was committed! Boddy was a very satisfying amateur sleuth to follow; although, interestingly enough, the detecting duo in “Pyjamas” didn’t make their appearance until well into the book.

The Russian gloom deepened. Basil had now bought a samovar. The cast of The Red Ant sat around it and wallowed in lukewarm tea and primitive emotion.

A particularly interesting aspect of the stories was the fact that Bude set both in a different kind of artistic setting. The theatre milieu in “Pyjamas” was really well portrayed, and it’s no surprise to learn that the author was keen on amateur dramatics himself. There were some wonderfully droll scenes as the actors attempt to get to grips with a spurious Russian play by a made-up Russian author (well, I *assume* he’s made up because I’ve never heard of him…) Seeing their life reflect art as they descend into gloom was very funny. Acting turns up also in “Calendar”, although here the dominant art form is Lydia Arundel’s painting career, and the picture she was working on at the time of her death makes recurring appearances…

It seemed that the atmosphere of Beckwood parish was charged with electricity. The local soothsayer prophesied the end of the world. A fireball passed over the church. A puppy with two heads was delivered in the house of the District Nurse. Old Mrs Faddian slipped on a wet brick path and broke her wrist. A hooded figure was seen near Beddow’s Bottom. Tragedy, swore Beckwood, was in the air!

So this bumper book of Bude was a real winner for me, hitting the spot perfectly just when I needed some relaxation and escapism. Despite the bulk of the book, I flew through it and absolutely loved it. Both “Death in White Pyjamas” and “Death Knows no Calendar” are worthy additions to the BLCC range and evidence of John Bude’s talent for writing wonderful and entertaining murder mysteries. If you enjoy Golden Age Crime and need some enjoyable escapist mysteries, this book and John Bude are for you! 😀

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!