Flour, eggs, sugar, butter. Mix them, put them in the oven, you get a cake. But there are cakes and there are cakes. Equally, books. Give me a baffling murder, the precise focus of which shifts again and again like the first two sections of John Dickson Carr’s The Arabian Nights Murder (1936), and stir in a Croftian alibi trick and I should be in heaven. Alas, this is one of the bad cakes — the sort of well-intentioned thing your seven year-old nephew bakes and you take two bites from out of politeness and then put down and hope no-one brings back to your attention. Christopher Bush has taken promising ingredients and cooked us a turgid mess.
I’ll be honest: I’m so taken with that analogy I’d be tempted to not even write the rest of this review, but who’m I kidding? Several of you are frothing at the mouth, angry with rage at my dismissal of such a highly-regarded title, and I should explain — typical JJ, he does this just to be controversial, etc — before your eye-rolling gives you RSI. Because, yes, I have previous here — Harriet Rutland, Ianthe Jerrold, E.R. Punshon…weirdly, these ebook reissues are leaving me cold. Sorry, Dean Street Press, I promise it’s nothing personal. I am very much in the minority, as will doubtless be evinced by lots of people in the comments below telling me I’m wrong. And doubtless there will be lots of comments like “How can you call this turgid when you love Freeman Wills Crofts?!1!”, so allow me to explain.
As to Crofts, I don’t think — on my reading a mere five of his books and this (admittedly highly regarded) one of Bush’s — that they cross over beyond the notion of breaking a seemingly-perfect alibi. Crofts’ lines are clear, rigorous, clean and — yes — pedantic in their fastidiousness, which is where the utter fascination for me begins. Here, Bush tells a story that is jumbled by repeat visits to the same people by different sleuths that add nothing beyond a sort of “Oh, so now those two have met” element. It’s like Avengers: Infinity War except you don’t really care when people finally appear together. So it’s like Avengers: Infinity War (man, do I enjoy anything?). As a shorthand, I call this Cards on the Table Syndrome.
It doesn’t sart well, it must be said, with the opening events feeling like a needlessly confusing parade of almost random people and happenings. And Bush’s prose can be so elliptical and vague that at times it’s infuriating trying to figure out what he’s telling you:
[H]e knew a merger was in process of formation; that Sir William was preparing to do for the haberdashery business — for shirts and socks — what other far-seeing people had done for tobacco and traffic.
Well, thanks for explaining what haberdashery is, Chris, but could you possibly be more precisely what is it Sir William was planning to do? Because I do not have a clue from that sentence, and I didn’t get an explanation elsewhere.
So the delivery of a dead body in a cabbage-leaf-stuffed trunk comes as a pleasant distraction, but leads to the sort of structure that betokens almost every action in the book from hereon: three people heading down to a small town in Devon, and then two of them returning to London but instead stopping at Taunton and then heading to London while the third deduces they’d’ve stopped at Taunton and goes to Taunton only to be told they’re now on their way to London, so this third person gives up and heads back to the small Devonshire town (I think). And then CotTS starts. If a location can be visited once, it can be visted again by someone else, and then discussed, and then gone to by someone else, and then again in consort with two of these three. And then maybe all three of them, go nuts. Ludovic Travers, our amateur sleuth who isn’t (by his own and his creator’s admission) a very good sleuth visits everyone. And then the police return and Travers tells them about everyone he met. And then the police go and visit everyone. And then Travers visits them all again. Also, you get told everything at least twice. A lot of information is repeated, easily more than once. Yes, this paragraph is deliberately prolix. I am making a point about the structure of this book. Allow me to summarise:
It. Is. So. Dull.
And, in spite of Bush having a delightful turn of phrase — an unctuous and slick secretary described as a “ball-bearing in an oil bath”, or Travers being unable to discern any detail in the speech of a local gardener — it drags, and lacks somewhat in chivalry in painting the sole female character encountered as a sort of empty-headed, interfering, “sex-ridden” harpy who is to be ushered out of the room as she has no place “thrust[ing] herself into men’s business”. I’m not normally one to blanch at the depiction of women in this era of this genre, but, jeepers, Mrs. Bland is not well-served, and it really bothered me for some reason.
At yet, and yet, there are some very good ideas herein, including the casual mention of a piece of misdirection that would go on to become the lynchpin of a celebrated Ellery Queen novel, and the working of the alibi trick which is clever but, ultimately, doesn’t feel like the sort of grand reveal that’s big enough or showy enough to justify the moribund narrative the precedes it. That shifting framing — the central problem is restructured twice, each time with so little fanfare that I actually missed it — is far cleverer than Bush makes it appear, and the payoff is a sort of “If the watch was out by as much as five minutes, we think it was 9:02 but it could have been 8:57 or it could have been 9:07, which means in the latter case that, if we allow a second window of three minutes, there’s a six-minute gap where…” finagling that makes my eyes glaze over. And, no, before you start, that is most assuredly not how I’ve seen Crofts go about it.
Believe me: I wanted so much to like this. But when the most interesting part of your murder novel is the revelation that one side of a vinyl recording lasted only five minutes, it’s fair to say that enjoyment has not been derived from the intended source. Man, and there are 62 others to read, too, which would have been a wonderful store to keep me going to retirement. A second run at Bush is on the cards, and DSP have been on hand to suggest titles, but it’s a shame to report that this first planting failed to bear fruit as hoped.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Travers brilliantly dismantles this person’s carefully constructed alibi and his reconstruction of the evening of the murder was very amusing, which demonstrated how the murderer was able to manipulate time itself. Perhaps it’s my chronophobic tendencies speaking, but I absolutely loved that ingenious time-manipulation trick. Even the fact that part of explanation came in the form of math homework could not diminish the cleverness of the trick. It’s this kind of ingenuity that reminds me why I love detective stories.