Reviewed by Harriet Devine
‘That’s just where I must part company with you, Inspector’, said the Vicar with a gentle smile. ‘I’m rather a voracious reader of mystery stories, and it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition’. (The Cornish Coast Murder).
You could be forgiven for not having heard of John Bude. Although he published about thirty crime novels between 1935 and his death in 1957, none of them has been in print for many decades. Now, thanks to British Library Crime Classics, his first two – The Cornish Coast Murder and The Lake District Murder – are newly available, complete with very attractive 1930s travel posters on the covers and new introductions by the prize-winning British crime writer Martin Edwards.
This is golden age crime, then, contemporary with the best of Christie, Sayers, Allingham and the rest. But if these two of Bude’s are anything to go by, his novels might be the very gentlest of the bunch. True, someone gets killed in each novel — a disagreeable old man in the first one, an apparently harmless young garage owner in the second — but the facts of the murder are lightly sketched in, and the real interest of the novel is the process of reasoning which leads to the uncovering of the identity of the perpetrator. So, in both instances, we are treated to a lot of silent thinking, whether by The Reverend Dodd in Cornwall or by Inspector Meredith in the Lakes. Silent thinking accompanied by expeditons with measuring tape, string, and sticks, that is. For both the Vicar and the Inspector are intensely practical men, who realise that motive and opportunity are no good without an understanding of means. It is certainly delightful to witness the elderly Vicar climbing about on the cliff top with his home-made measuring devices, or to find Meredith commissioning a large wooden box with muslin stretched over the top, which he will be dropping into the small waterfall in a nearby beck.
Intuition, as the Vicar says, plays a large part in the detection process here. Young Ruth Tregarthan is the obvious suspect in Cornwall, but despite all the evidence pointing in her direction, the Rev Dodd cannot believe she is guilty. In the Lakes, meanwhile, Meredith is not satisfied with the intial verdict of suicide, and soon works out that not only has Clayton been murdered, but that this is more or less incidental to some very shady doings involving petrol stations, delivery trucks, and underground passageways. While in neither case is the final denouement exactly an astonishing revelation, that’s hardly the point here. It’s watching these thoughtful men gradually arriving at a satisfactory conclusion that’s the real interest here.
Back at Greystoke Road, Meredith crept in between the sheets, without waking his wife, and lay thinking. He had got it at last! He knew now what Ormby-Wright was up to! He had, so to speak, walked through a pitch-black tunnel and emerged into blinding sunlight. Now the whole case, like a smiling stretch of countryside, lay spread out before him.
These are two really charming novels. Both published in 1935 — a busy year for Bude, evidently — they provide the most wonderful picture of a long-gone way of life, which it is sometimes hard to believe is still just about within living memory. For one thing, the finances are a bit of an eye-opener:
Higgins’ share in the garage profits was £2 a week. Ten shillings went to Mrs Swinley for her services, which left Higgins with thirty-five shillings. Out of this he had to pay his food, clothing, personal expenses, and share the general running expenses of the cottage.
Then there’s the way that Meredith rides around the countryside on a motorbike, with or without a sidecar attached, and always makes sure he gets home in time for his high tea. Meetings with the Chief Constable invariably begin with an invitation to the (needless to say, all male) team to ‘put on’ their pipes — get them out and light them, that is. As for women, they are barely visible in the Lake District Murder – there’s a telling moment when Meredith visits one of his informants, and the man makes ‘a sign for his wife to retire to the kitchen’. I couldn’t help trying to picture just what kind of sign that might have been.
Another great joy of these two novels is the fact that Bude has set them in what must be the two most beautiful places in England, but then chosen to de-emphasise their most obviously beautiful aspects. In Cornwall, the setting is a fairly unremarkable cliff-top house above a fairly unremarkable beach, though the Vicar does take great pleasure in the beauty of the view, where
few silver, yellow clouds of incredible brightness stretched along the dark rim of the seaward horizon, splintered with a few misty rays of the setting sun.
And the Lakeland where Meredith lives and works is not the famous tourist destinations of Windermere, Ambleside and Grasmere, but the relatively unglamorous and sparsely inhabited area near the West coast, where ordinary people live ordinary lives. Indeed, it’s that very ordinariness that sets Bude’s novels apart from those of his better-known contemporaries, with their aristocratic detectives and country house settings. Well done to the British Library for bringing them to light.
Harriet is one of the Shiny editors.
John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder and The Lake District Murder (British Library, 2014).
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