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Murder in the Sun

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Death on the Riviera by John Bude

Since this summer has been something of a washout, weather-wise (at least where I live, anyway), I was glad of the chance to escape to warmer climes recently; and in a bit of an uncertain state about what to read next I launched myself into this lovely volume from the British Library Crime Classics which I picked up on a jaunt to London over the summer. I’ve read and reviewed several of John Bude’s books on the Ramblings, and he’s definitely one of the successes of the BLCC range. His Inspector Meredith is a down-to-earth and appealing character, his mysteries are always set somewhere specific with a strong sense of place, and the plot is always solid and satisfying. And certainly the sunny south of France had a lot more going for it than soggy Suffolk at the end of August…

“Death on the Riviera”, first published in 1952, sees Inspector Meredith and his young sidekick, Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang, heading off to the south of France in pursuit of a criminal. Interestingly, it’s not a murderer they’re after but a counterfeiter, known as ‘Chalky’ Cobbett, and their visit is part of an international effort to track down forged money which is making the rounds. En route, they encounter Bill Dillon, also travelling south, though he is heading to the village of the ageing Nesta Hedderwick in pursuit of his absent wife Kitty. The villa is a centre for some decadent goings-on with a dodgy resident artist, a playboy who’s also keen on Kitty and various hangers-on. Nesta’s niece Dilys seems surprisingly normal, and it’s not long before the two worlds collide, Freddy falls for Dilys, and it seems that the villa may be more involved with the forgery scam than might have first appeared likely. However, this is no straightforward golden age mystery – it’s not revealing too much to say that murder doesn’t happen until well into the book – and it takes all of Meredith’s ingenuity to untangle the threads of the plot and sort out a solution.

I was reminded how much I enjoy Bude’s books as soon as I picked this one up, and it was one of those golden age mysteries you just don’t want to put down. The setting, both in place and time, was spot on; the south of France, with its rich and poor, trend setters and hangers-on, was very vivid, and the fact that the book was set so close, relatively speaking, to the end of WW2, added a little frisson. In fact, the opening of the story, when Bill Dillon is passing through customs at Dunkirk and casting his mind back to the last time he was there, is very atmospheric. Bude’s descriptions are often quite lovely, bringing to life the sun, the landscape and the area beautifully.

Monte Carlo in the 1950s

The plot itself is clever and complex, twisting and turning all over the place. Bude *does* pretty much play fair with the reader and I sussed one particular twist before the end although the specifics evaded me. And several other twists passed me by until they were resolved, if I’m honest. One of the joys of Meredith is that he usually gets his man (or woman) through sheer hard graft. No flights of fancy, but door-to-door questioning, going over and over the problem – and yes, I suppose in the end he *does* let his little grey cells eventually come to the right conclusion. But watching him going through the process is a delight, and the comical romantic misadventures of Strang were great fun too. The solution to the smuggling plot was very, very ingenious and having this run alongside the murder plot added an extra element.

Any misgivings? Not really – I would have liked a little more after-story about a couple of the characters; one in particular was left hanging in an uncomfortable situation at the end of the book and it would have been nice to find out what happened to her (and the other character associated with her). But apart from that, “Death on the Riviera” was the perfect, relaxing, end of summer read and at least I got transported to the sunny coast for a day or two – even if it was in the company of criminals! :))

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Murder, Regency-style!

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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.

chelt square

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?

Photo from http://www.gloucestershirepolicemuseum.co.uk

Cheltenham Promenade Gardens – Photo from http://www.gloucestershirepolicemuseum.co.uk

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!

Vintage Crime on the South Coast

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The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

Thanks to my lovely local library I’ve been able to indulge in a number of the very wonderful British Library Crime Classics series, and they’re recently got in a number of new titles, of which this is one. John Bude has been one of the successes of the series, and I previously read and enjoyed his earlier titles, “The Lake District Murder” and “The Cornish Coast Murder” I was very keen to start one set in Sussex (obviously topographical plots are a theme in his books!)

“The Sussex Downs Murder” features Inspector Meredith, who also did the sleuthing in the Lake District. He’s been transferred south, along with his wife and brainy son, and is applying his solid, reliable detecting qualities to local cases – and the murder that turns up here is a strange one!

sussex downs

Brothers John and William Rother live together in a farm in Sussex, along with William’s wife Janet. All seems idyllic until one day John sets off on a trip to Harlech for a holiday – but never arrives. Instead, his car is found abandoned not far away; there are blood stains and signs of an attack; and then bones are discovered nearby and it seems that there is a murder to investigate. But who is the major suspect; both William and Janet come under scrutiny, as the latter was seen to be getting a little too friendly with her brother-in-law. Was William jealous or had Janet had enough of the intentions of John? However, what appears to be a straightforward case is anything but, and it takes all of Meredith’s ingenuity to get to the bottom of things.

TSDM was another wonderful read from the British Library collection, and they really should be applauded for saving these works from obscurity. Meredith is an appealing character, persistent and methodical, and would be a very reassuring detective to have around in a crisis. And the plot’s a clever and inventive one, though I have to confess up front that I got the major twist (and it is a major twist) very early on in the book. Bude plays fair with his readers, and if you have a reasonable amount of experience with murder mysteries I think you’re in with a fair chance of working out the solution!

I reckon, Mr. Barnet, that you should let your readers know just as much as the police know. That’s only fair. And one up to the reader who can outstrip the police and make an early arrest. Not guess-work, mark you, but a certainty based on proven facts. That’s only fair to us because we can’t arrest a chap because we think he’s guilty.

But this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of reading the book at all, and there’s great pleasure to be got from the setting, the plotting and watching Meredith reach his conclusions. Bude adds a nice little extra element in the form of Aldous Barnet, an author friend of William Rother’s, who observes the case with a somewhat professional interest. Bude is not averse to letting his sleuth have a little dig or two at the more fanciful fictional detectives; Meredith eschews gimmicks and goes for solid, workmanlike detection, and certainly succeeds here in tracking down the solution.

So another lovely find from the British Library Crime Collection – very much my go-to place if I want a comfy, classic, non-gory murder mystery.

Murder in the West Country

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The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

Well, thanks to my lovely local library, I have reached the 5th and final British Library Crime Classic volume they ordered in at my suggestion – “The Cornish Coast Murder” by John Bude. This was the first of his murder mysteries (I reviewed “The Lake District Murder” here) and in many ways I think it might be the best of the batch I’ve read.

Cornish-Coast

The book is set in the quiet Cornish village of Boscawen. Here lives the Reverend Dodd, who likes nothing more than spending a happy evening in front of his fire reading a murder mystery, then discussing it over a meal with his friend. the local doctor Pendrill. However, one stormy night his neighbour, Julius Tregarthen, is found shot. The latter is a grumpy and unpopular local landlord and Magistrate, living alone with his niece Ruth. But who could have wanted him dead? There are only a few suspects – Ruth herself; Ronald Hardy, a shell-shocked author living locally who is keen on Ruth (and vice versa!); and a local poacher seen arguing with Julius earlier on the day of the murder. Unfortunately the local police are stumped, despite coming up with several theories – and Hardy has done a runner, which confuses the issue completely.

Fortunately, the Rev Dodd has imbibed much criminal expertise from his reading of crime novels, and is happy to put this into practice, joining the local Inspector in his investigations. He has the advantage of local knowledge, of course, being the Vicar and party to everyone’s problems and comings and goings. So while the hapless Inspector Bigswell runs around trying to find clues, evidence and checking out hypotheses, Dodd sits in his chair and comes up with an intuitive solution.

This was *such* a lovely read – full of atmosphere and humour, but plenty of drama as well. Bude’s other novel was very much a police procedural, but this one had much more to it. Dodd made an appealing detective, and his sparring with Pendrill and Bigswell was lovely. The plot was beautifully twisty and turny and I didn’t guess the end, which is always a delight nowadays. The scene where Dodd and Pendrill discuss the latest novels they’re going to read, name-dropping such notables as Sayers, Freeman Wills Croft and “my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot, I hope” was a hoot and signposted the whole tenor of the novel – because the ‘little grey cells’ are very much how Dodd solves the mystery. The denouement was much more effective in this novel too – some of the others I’ve read have been slightly anticlimactic.

I’ve had a ball reading the British Library Crime Classics, and I hope they keep reissue these lost authors – on the evidence of those I’ve read so far, they certainly don’t deserve to be forgotten!

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