Reviewed by Simon
I’ve got all the John Bude reprints that have appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series, and have given several to other people, but Death on the Riviera (1952) is actually the first of his that I’ve read. Like all the others, he has been given a beautiful cover – but what of the contents? Well, it’s a fun detective novel that won’t stand up to rigorous examination, but is none the less enjoyable for that.
Having not read the others, I wasn’t welcoming Detective Inspector Meredith as an old friend, and indeed he doesn’t seem to be particularly distinct as a character from this first reading. He certainly doesn’t have the unusual traits of a Poirot or Marple, or even of the detectives who appear elsewhere in the British Library reprints – he is simply a man energetically pursuing justice. In this case, he is trying to track down the noted forger Chalky Cobbett.
If you’re thinking ‘forger? But what about the death?’ then we’re in the same boat. Much is made about the forged notes that are flying around the Riviera, and the various people who may or may not be disguised versions of Chalky, but for a solid three-quarters of the novel there is no death. I’d started to wonder if Death on the Riviera was a misnomer, but – fear not – somebody gets pushed off a cliff. Hurrah!
The solution to the murder happens incredibly quickly after this (seeing as there aren’t that many pages to fit it in), and it is an almost inexcusably flimsy denouement, given that this was 1952 and the Golden Age had already given plenty of examples of how to do this sort of thing well – BUT that somehow doesn’t matter at all. The success of Death on the Riviera is all in the atmosphere, and the insouciant fun of getting to visit the Villa Paloma and its tempestuous inhabitants.
True, some of these avenues lead to blind corners, but I think my favourite element was the guy who was paying a hunchback to fake paintings for him. That was something of a stroke of – well, not genius, but at least ingenuity – on the part of Bude (whose actual name, incidentally, was Ernest Elmore: who’s in disguise now?) He throws in a love triangle, a secret marriage, all sorts of other secrets I won’t divulge: it’s jam-packed with incident. In many ways, it feels like the soap opera of its day: not overly sophisticated but a very enjoyable romp.
If the plot doesn’t quite match the setting, and the various investigations of the detective take place almost entirely through a series of coincidences and unlikely events, then we can forgive Bude this. If you think of Death on the Riviera as an evocative mid-century novel first and foremost, rather than a detective novel hinging on its plotting, then it’s great fun – and that certainly shouldn’t be underestimated as a pleasure.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and will stay away from cliff edges in future.
John Bude, Death on the Riviera (British Library: London, 2016). 978071235674, 223pp., paperback.