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.