Three years. That’s how long ago TomCat’s review of The Case of the April Fools (1933) typified Christopher Bush’s writing as falling “halfway between Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr”. So I read the oft-celebrated Cut-Throat (1932) and didn’t really get on with it and then, to be honest, other books intruded and I simply never got back to Bush. I wasn’t avoiding him, per se, and Dean Street Press had gamely recommended Bush’s twentieth novel The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939) as possibly more to my liking…but, in these reprint-rich times, it can be difficult to keep up, y’know?
Then, a couple of weeks ago, Nick at The Grandest Game in the World, surely one of the best-read contributors to our little GAD blogging coterie, reviewed The Case of the Green Felt Hat, recalling to me my intentions, and recommending in the comments that The Case of the April Fools might be more my tempo. And so here we are, with yet another example of me being underwhelmed and everyone wondering what on earth my problem is. So allow me to attempt to explain…
Had this book been published 10 years earlier, before the tenets of detective fiction had found a surer footing, it would earn another star for effort: it energetically gets amateur detective Ludovic Travers down to a country pile for an evening that he knows isn’t going to be quite what is purported, and it kills one guest and then other with an impatience that borders on the reckless restlessness of that enthusiastically innovating era. These opening few chapters are among the best, with some wonderfully acerbic turns of phrase, such as a young woman typified as “somewhat of a vulgarian with a spiritual home well in the middle of the front row of the chorus” or a man so ostentatious while apparently under the threat of death that “he might as well have announced his movements with a drum and fife band”.
Come the murder, all the fun disappears. Bush loads clues like pellets into a shotgun, fires it into the narrative, and then has chapters and chapters of people endlessly picking it out of the wainscotting. A key! A thoroughly bland letter! Some mud! Someone furtively searching a desk! A garden hoe! A man going for a walk! There’s no structure or artistry to the revelations, Bush simply knows what the answer is and needs to get eighteen things on the board so he can move them into the appropriate places. And I wouldn’t say that I detected even a sniff of Carr or Crofts’ scent about this — consider Carr’s The Eight of Swords (1934), similarly built from inexplicable occurrences dappling a crime scene, where every bizarre discovery (the speaking tube, the open windows, the power cut, etc.) fits so naturally into the shape of the narrative. Hell, even the arguably less successful The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945) brought more shape to its events beyond merely the events themselves. And compare that novel to the confused explanation disclosed in the final chapter to explain the mystery here…a series of events that would leave Crofts laughing up his sleeve for how unstructured it all reveals itself to be.
In an impressively small cast, which would be reminiscent of Christianna Brand if even one of them had any characteristic to remember them by, the sheer number of people who have done something entirely blameless and yet go about hiding evidence of these acts as if they have any bearing on the murders is…surprising. And very reminiscent of a 1920s farce. Yes, I know it’s a Golden Age trope of sorts, but Bush uses it here in a manner that feels about as authentic as Sophie Hannah’s rendering of Hercule Poirot. Plus, there’s a distinct air of the padding that fills out, say, Death on the Nile (1937) in how two or three plot strands here — the one resolved in chapter 14, say — could be removed wholesale and have the book make a lot more sense in terms of both character action and motivation. Again, in 1923 this would be more acceptable. Still annoying, but not this annoying.
You’re welcome, too, to cite the complexity of this scheme when comparing it to far better writers, but when the core murder only becomes a mystery because of the entirely unaccountable actions of one person…sorry, but to me that’s not good plotting. To generate mystery from someone who doesn’t know the purpose of at least one key object taking that object from the crime scene and placing it in a conveniently mysterious place…well. You might as well have a sheep smuggled into the house so that everyone wonders why there’s a sheep there, and the reason there’s a sheep there is to make everyone wonder why there’s a sheep there…but while it’s there it also eats a key clue and at the end Travers tries to convince you that said consumption was a genius part of the Machiavellian scheme. You’d be furious. And rightly so.
But, look, it’s not all bad. I did like Chief Inspector Norris and his men, who remind me of the easy camaraderie among professional brothers in arms typified by Norman Berrow’s Lancelot Carolus Smith novels…
“Look at the sleeve of this dressing gown, how it’s scorched. He probably knew the bullet was coming and put his arm up.”
“I’d have ducked,” said Lewis flippantly. Travers rather agreed with him.
…but some semi-hardboiled dialogue (“This fellow’s tailor-made for the job. What you’d rather have is a suit of reach-me-downs.”) or the occasionally terse dismissal of a concept makes me suspect that Bush would rather have been writing less genteel stories that dwelled more on form and less on function — Erle Stanley Gardner was disgusted when his own writing was compared to that of Dashiell Hammett, and I get the feeling from this that Bush would be delighted were the same to happen to him. This is limp, tepid writing masquerading as legitimate detection — everyone just knows what they need to know, or they guess wildly and happen to be correct at the first try — and Bush is only deserving of comparison to Crofts and Carr on account of how equally far behind both of them he finds himself nine books into his career.
But, everyone else disagrees with me, so make of that what you will. I, however, reckon I can safely give the man and his work a wide berth for the time being without feeling too wretched about what I might be missing. The worst part of all this is that I feel like I’m letting Nick down somehow.
Sorry, Nick. We’ll always have R. Austin Freeman…
Jose @ A Crime is Afoot: In short, as a reading experience it was fascinating. The story is nicely crafted, the author plays fair, and the plot is complex enough to interest the reader. Even if the solution comes as no surprise to you, I still found the story clever and attractive.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: There is a lot to intrigue and perplex readers in these crimes, including bizarre clues at the crime scene, (in a bedroom), such as a Dutch hoe. One slight niggle is that a very crucial piece of information is only found out at the very end of the book, a piece of information which gives the sleuths their final breakthrough and yet the only thing stopping them from getting this information sooner is one very recalcitrant suspect. I don’t know, perhaps this aspect of mystery writing affects people in different ways, but I think I prefer evidence to be more readily available, yet of course given in such a way that you smack your forehead at the end of the story, when you realise what you’ve missed.
Maybe Bush would be more to my liking in short form — his crime story ‘The Hampstead Murder’ (1955) in Tony Medawar’s very enjoyable Bodies from the Library 3 (2020) collection is much more my tempo. I doubt any of these DSP reissues is a short story collection, but the semi-inverted nature of that story is quite pleasing. So — any inverted mysteries in this man’s output? Because that might tempt me back in sooner.