#385: Cut Throat (1932) by Christopher Bush

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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.

~

See also

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.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Night of the Wolf from last week since both this novel and ‘The Dead Dance at Night’ divide their time between London and Devon.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Means of murder in title.

76 thoughts on “#385: Cut Throat (1932) by Christopher Bush

  1. That doesn’t sound at all good, which is a shame. My only experience of the author up to now has been a short story in one of the British Library anthologies (maybe Crimson Snow?) and I can’t say that really grabbed me either.

    • Always bear in mind two things:

      1) I’m a weirdly awkward reader to please — c’mon, virtually no-one likes the mix of things I like, that’s why I’m here doing what I do…!

      2) Bush wrote sixty-three books and so is bound to’ve got it right at some point; we’d be mad to write off Dame Agatha after only reading The Clocks, so I shall persevere; DSP have been most helpful in recommending further titles, so I shall give him another go before too long and hopefully have a better time.

      The shame of it is how highly-regarded this one is, which I can understand for how the problem gets reframed and reframed, but I just don’t feel that thrill others have reported at the reveal. It feels to me like a sort of “aaaah, I see…” clever mid-book revelation rather than a “my narrative hinges on this moment of brilliance” end-piece. In fact, reversing it with one of the reframings of the problem (so, this in the middle and that at the end) would have been much more up my street.

      Ah, well, ever onwards…

      • Indeed, you can’t dismiss a prolific author on the basis of one book. Still, this sounds very pedestrian. I’m keen to hear your thoughts on those other recommendations whenever you get to them – one of those books (April Fools, I think) got me curious when I first heard about it.

        • Next up will be Green Felt Hat, which John at Pretty Sinister enjoyed because it contained less of what I didn’t like about this one…so that bodes well.

  2. This one does sound frustrating. I still have yet to try Bush but I think I will make sure that this isn’t my first one based on your experience.

    • Seemingly everyone else who has ever read this disagrees with me, so I’m a very small sample size. Someone with more patience than me may fare better, but I’m certainly not put off trying Bush again. With any luck, my second run will have a happier result…

  3. Your paragraph about the three people going to Taunton reminds me of the brain teaser about trying to get the fox, the duck, and the bag of corn safely across the river. Because really by the time you figure it all out, who cares if the fox has eaten the duck?

    The reason I haven’t written my review of The Case of the April Fools, which I began reading five months ago, is that I started twice and got stuck on Chapter Four both times, and I’m terrified to announce that this newly popularized, highly prolific classic author is a little . . . er . . . boring . . .

    But I’m not like you, JJ. I don’t sit in my little English parlor and simply attack a popular author for the sake of being sensational and funny. If I did that for long, the book world would label me the Demon of Dartmoor. (Go ahead and look back – I liked that one.)

    • Gah, you guys are killing me! I’ve had four Christopher Bush titles sitting in my pile since December, and I’ve been drooling over the prospect of starting Cut Throat and The Case of the April Fools based on reviews that I’ve read. And now you’re going to make me second guess myself?!?!

      • Four?! Mind you, I’m the man who bought eight Peter Robinson books without reading anything by him and spent years convincing myself that they were good and I was enjoying myself, so I can hardly talk…

    • The worst thing about that that Taunton-based shenanigans is that it doesn’t really add anything. I’ll take poorly-structured flim-flam if it’s the only way to achieve a particular effect (that effect, naturally, being worth achieving), but there’s a lot there and elsewhere that feels like padding insulating the good ideas this contains.

      Yes, I can see the carefully-stoked sensation this is going to cause. I’ll be on the front page of all tomorrow’s papers, mwah-hahahaha, exactly as according to plan. Also — given my location and tastes — I think I’d prefer to be “London, Particular”.

    • I think we might consider the term “popular.” There’s Christoper Bush and then there’s the person who wrote the latest “Girl on the…” book. It’s nice there’s interest in vintage mystery reprinting, but we still have a way to go!

        • However, your Roger Scarlett review and this Bush one rank high in the search engines, damn it! There is nothing more dispiriting than those, “I was going to read it but now I won’t” comments which follow one bad blog review. Loyal review readers though!

          • Hey, I’m as distressed at people being put off as you are — that’s not what I’m trying to do here, I promise! I usually try to highlight what I enjoyed about this so that others might go “Huh, well that actually sounds like it has its good points…” and be tempted in spite of something not being to my personal tastes.

            Aw, man, am I going to have to go and get all reflective about my intentions vs. my outcomes? And just as I was enjoying myself, too…

            • FWIW, I never get the sense you post a negative review of a book just for the sake of it. If we’re going to write down our thoughts on anything, then surely we have to be honest and say if it doesn’t work for us. I know I tend to focus as much as possible on the positives when I’m scribbling something about a movie but that doesn’t mean I gloss over the problem areas as I see them. I think the key is to back up your criticisms – which I feel you do here – and give some kind of context to them. This means that someone can get an idea of why something is less successful for you and, crucially, have some context to allow one to see whether your view and your reader’s are likely to coincide; if you confess to being a massive fan of tricky alibi based procedurals and then say that a book falling into that category disappointed you, I think it has a bit more relative weight than a similar criticism from someone who’s into Gothic Had-I-But-Known stories. And infinitely more wight than the kind of “Meh. Crap. Pass.” reviews that pop up occasionally on certain online retail sites.

            • Thanks, Colin, much appreciated.

              I’ve seen some bloggers on a few of the blogs I’ve glanced at debate whether they should (or why they don’t, in some cases) post negative reviews, and I’ve never understood why someone wouldn’t or shouldn’t. If the subjectivity of an opinion is going to have any merit at all, it’s best appreciated in the context of what that person has liked and disliked elsewhere — this is why a review from, say, The Times means nothing to me because a newspaper is written by so many people with so many contradictory opinions. By contrast, looking at someone’s Amazon profile fascinates me no end, because it draws such a detailed picture of that person’s tastes and motivations over time.

              I suppose I’m a little perturbed by the idea that I might be — intentionally or otherwise — trying to actively dissuade people from checking out something purely because I didn’t like it. Hell, the joy I’m taking in Freeman Wills Croft after years of being told what a dullard he is makes me if anything more determined not to appear to be trying to to have the final word on an author or a book. I won’t say I love something if I don’t, but equally my loving it or otherwise is still intended to be open to plenty of debate…

            • To be sure there is reviewing that is essentially logrolling, designed to sell books by big publishers, that’s why you will never see any negative reviews of books at those places. And those sorts of reviews really aren’t helping readers. But it doesn’t hurt readers to look around a bit at varying opinions in either case.

          • I? I?!? MY little review had any effect on sales? My blog “ranks high in the search engines”??? I just ordered the second book because I keep hearing books three and four are better. What power do I have?

            • It does come up, Brad, you were in early. But then so does the Closet review, so there is that….But, all things being equal, I’m guessing it’s probably just as well you haven’t reviewed The Case of the April Fools! If twice you failed to get past chapter four it’s not a good sign. Maybe you should try Elizabeth Gill, I know you’ve like something by DSP in the past.

            • Yes, that’s right, try another one of the ladies sometime, Brad. But probably not Annie Haynes, though actually she turned out to be rather popular!

            • Too late!!!! I read – and reviewed – Who Killed Charmian Karslake. The review was submitted under the title, “Curtis Made Me Do It.” ‘Nuff said . . .

          • There is nothing more dispiriting than those, “I was going to read it but now I won’t” comments which follow one bad blog review.

            I don’t understand those comments and hope that, in most cases, it’s nothing more than a want of something to say in the comments, because I wouldn’t want my semi-coherent ramblings to be the final word on a writer’s work. These are merely our opinions, influenced by a myriad of factors in our background and preferences, which is why we can have completely opposing views on the same book. JJ can back me up on that.

            • I’m always careful when I don’t enjoy something to try to link to a review that has a rosier outlook on it for this precise reason. If I can’t find one then I can’t find one, but if a contrary view is out there and just as easy to stumble upon as mine then the sensible and fair thing is to acknowledge it, for the exact reason you outline above.

            • I made my own introduction to the book available on my blog to give people in detail my own alternative view of the novel. It’s never bad to have a second opinion, especially when the first diagnosis is fatal!

  4. Thanks for the review, and for offering an alternative perspective. 🙂 Not just for “Cut Throat”, vis-a-vis TomCat’s review, but also for “Double Alibi”, again vis-a-vis TomCat’s review.

    I agree that one can hardly evaluate an author with a wide canon on the basis of 1 or 2 works – but it’s discouraging when what is purportedly the strongest works prove mediocre. I suppose I’m thinking of Lorac here, as I recently read a lukewarm review of “Murder on the Mill-Race”, which is meant to be one of her stronger works.

    • The strength of Bush’s work is difficult to gauge here — he’s not going to be the John Dickson Carr of Unbreakable Alibis without writing more than one good one, so I’m hopeful he hit upon a more succinct formula in his other books, and the whole “Cut Throat is the best Christopher Bush novel” thing is shown to be akin to The Hollow Man being touted as the best JDC.

      And, believe it or not, I take no pleasure in posting negative reviews, or ones that run contrary to popular opinion…I just need to be honest when I don’t enjoy something. I’d feel awful recommending something I didn’t enjoy myself, and having to keep up the pretence of enjoyment in subsequent discussions would be too much work for my tiny brain.

    • I think with Lorac, none of her individual books is overwhelmingly brilliant, but somehow the totality of her work is better than any one book considered separately. Even when the solution is really obvious (I won’t say which one I’m thinking of) it can still be a pleasure to read or re-read them, in my view.

  5. Christopher Bush has taken promising ingredients and cooked us a turgid mess.

    Y-you are a turgid mess!

    I don’t know what to say, except for that old notion of there being no accounting for taste, but, if you hated Cut Throat, you’ll probably dislike The Perfect Murder Case. No idea why DSP recommended it to you.

    So my suggestion is to try one of his more traditionally structured novels. Personally, I would recommend Dancing Death, The Case of the Chinese Gong or The Case of the Missing Minutes, but, considering our track-record, you might want to try The Case of the Monday Murders. The only one that has, thus far, let me down. So you’ll probably love it. 😉

    • This is what i so enjoy about this blogging — the way we all read the same words but different books is kind of amazing. And I didn’t hate this — I enjoyed many aspects of the writing and the plotting, it just failed to mesh in any way that was enjoyable for my brain. An edit to compress matters and remove the frustrating redundancy might well have resulted in me loving it.

      Chinese Gong, Missing Minutes, and something else were all on my wishlist as somewhere to go next if I’d loved this, so they evidently struck some sort of chord in me. I’ll try Green Felt Hat and hopefully enjoy that more, because I’d love to read some of Bush’s impossible crimes.

  6. I haven’t read this one, but the two Bushes I have read (TCOT Tudor Queen and The Perfect Murder Case) I found less than brilliant. I may try again at some point, but I’m not hopeful…

      • If you try him again, maybe Tudor Queen, actually? It’s very police procedural for Bush. I really enjoyed on rereading. Of course I’ve read Cut Throat twice and liked it both times! In fact, I think I started the whole “Hurrah! Cut Throat” thing.

        • Cool, thanks for the tip. And, yes, I remember a loist of yours on Mystery*File that put Bush and Cut Throat on my radar, back when such things seemed but a distant dream…

  7. There are more coming! Maybe you’ll be one of the people who likes the later titles better (or not). I have to say, as you already know from the introduction, that I totally disagree with you, except–Crofts does have that quality of crystalline clarity, which is something I associate with the Humdrums in my book Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery. I excluded Bush from Masters, among other reasons, because I felt he had less streamlined plotting. Certainly the same quality, enhanced, applies to writers like Punshon and Gladys Mitchell. But they all are writers I like, for their varying qualities. Unfortunately, I am not involved with the Street reissues, but I am pleased to have been involved with resurrecting Connington, Wade (though I didn’t get to do an intro there), Bush, Punshon, Ianthe Jerrold, Harriet Rutland, Roger Scarlett, etc., and I am going to keep at it, because happily there are people enjoying these reissues. It’s good times for vintage mystery.

    • We’re always very excited to see what you’re going to be involved in next, Curtis — keep the good news coming! “Streamlined” is definitely the quality Bush lacks, he’s almost making it up as he goes along at times, but I can believe such a long and prolific career would lend itself to a variety of styles, and I’m keen to see what else he did. And I always maintain that I’d much rather a book be available to read so that I know I don’t like it than to have it OOP and spend my life wondering. Many thanks for all your efforts!

  8. And personally I like Bush better than Crofts, but that’s an inevitable judgment call. Certainly I’m glad to see Crofts being embraced, as the author of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, and for the virtues I highlighted in the book. Though I think Crofts’ writing too often veers into the banal, it gets into the fundamental question of what readers want out of a mystery novel. Do they want very plain prose (although sometimes purplish when drama is called upon) and a laser focus on investigation, or do they like diversions (Sayers’s bell-ringing, etc.)?

    • Well, the joyous thing is that we don’t have to choose — the detection school was a very broad church, and plenty was produced all along the scale. I’d say I’m a plotter myself, but then poor or under-developed characters can irritate me immensely…Crfots has thus far been a delight, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I stumble over one I don’t click with.

      Sayers and her bell-ringing, however, is neither plot nor character, and instead author-insert clever-cleverness, and I hold no truck with that at all…!

      • Well, the bell ringing in Sayers actually does fit in with the plot, but I know some find the great detail tedious. As I guess you did with the pressmen detail in this book, which I found very interesting, as I discuss in the introduction. I also really enjoyed the alibi element, and perhaps my quoting Nick Fuller comparing Bush to Carr, in terms of the formers handling of the alibi problem, really set this off with you. But I think at his best Bush captures that almost magical, or miraculous quality of Carr, something one misses in the more prosaic Crofts, though Crofts does have that crystalline clarity, as I mentioned, which is impressive in its own right.

        • I found the pressmen stuff fascinating, actually and really liked how it worked into the plot — it always pleases me to get those details where the little rococo touches give you so much information about the period and workings (show, don’t tell…). The bluff of being a reporter at the paper already, the way our suspicious about him play out, all very, very good. It’s the quality in these aspects that makes me keen to return and eager to enjoy Bush more.

  9. I agree Travers came off as rather a prig here, but then the way he wrote about women in GA detective fiction frequently leaves something to be desired. I write into Masters about how Crofts divides women, with some very limited exceptions, into insipid good girls, bad girls and motherly matrons (a woman over 50 say).

    My theory with Bush is that (if you know about his personal background) he had a strong sexual urge and perversely tended to fault the women for the messes his own urges got him into. He’s not the first to do that, though that doesn’t let him off the hook,

    It’s an attitude that comes out in his books, though I think Travers’ eventual wife represents Bush’s own final companion, with whom he lived harmoniously for many years.

    • I’d be fascinated to see Bush’s characterising of Travers’ wife based on this theory. I have a feeling Travers is married in Green Felt Hat, where I’ll head next with Bush, so I’ll be sure to compare notes and report back.

  10. I have not read any work of bush but I recently purchased missing minutes, another highly regarded title and was planning to read it soon.
    Now, I am not so sure. I think I am good reading carrs for now:)

    • What worries me about this is the implication that people are paying attention to my opinions. That can’t be right, can it? Do you lot have any idea how much of an idiot I am in real life?!

      • If you want to take our lead on anything, Sherlock, make sure it’s our uncanny ability to disagree on pretty much anything. As you can see in this comment-section, the opinions on Bush are divided and you really should make up your own mind by reading The Case of the Missing Minutes.

      • Well, we’ve met a few times, so, yes.

        I’m divided on Bush. I found Tudor Queen, read before the DSP reissues rather dull, but on the other hand, loved April Fools, despite it being as obvious as a very obvious thing (to me, at least). I’d recommend Dead Shepherd though, one that seems to have got little attention. And it’s a school based mystery which, for once, is set in a state school. It’s atmospheric, complex and rather dark, and I still find myself thinking about bits of it…

        As for negative reviews, I’m with you. Post them, provided you stuck with the book long enough to finish it, but emphasise the positives – especially when it’s not a tatty old thing you find in a second hand bookshop. I’d hate to ruin someone’s livelihood that might depend on the book. If I recall, I even found something nice to say about The Monogram Murders…

        • Green Felt Hat, Dead Shepherd…man, this is like some sort of weird spy movie code, innit? “Ixnay on the Cut Throat, let’s re-convene after the Dead Shepherd”.

        • I didn’t much like Tudor Queen the first time, then on rereading years later, when I forgot everything besides the fact that it was relatively sexually explicit, I really liked it, as detail built on detail. I think being immersed in the whole Bush milieu must have been a factor but it also seemed very consciously a police procedural, like Crofts’ The Loss of the Jane Vosper or some Henry Wades of the day.

          I’m glad you liked The Dead Shepherd, because that as another I really liked on rereading, and some people haven’t liked it all, including Nick Fuller. But it’s very realist and rather dour. Bush hated schoolmastering!

          • Well, there’s plenty more Bush to read before going back to give The Tudor Queen another go – about 16 DSP titles, 10 more very soon and I’ve a copy of The Seven Bells on my shelf…

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