Already it looked as if the police were up against a carefully planned and cleverly executed murder, and, what was more, a murder without a corpse!
The British Library Crime Classics have been a growing force in bringing back Golden Age mysteries, with their release of Mystery in White rocketing up the sales charts and becoming a runaway Christmas hit. The British Library volumes—now published by Poisoned Pen Press in the US—come with beautiful retro cover art, feature introductions by Martin Edwards, and bring vintage mysteries and underrated authors from the 1930s back into print. Ernest Elmore was one such author, who penned thirty mysteries from 1935 to 1958 under the name John Bude, and helped co-found the Crime Writers’ Association. His first two novels, The Cornish Coast Murder and The Lake District Murder, were previous British Library volumes; his third novel, The Sussex Downs Murder, is one of the British Library’s next wave of releases; it’s already available in the UK and will be released in May 2015 in the US.
I received an ARC from Netgalley and the British Library/Poisoned Pen Press in exchange for an open and honest review.
Brothers John and William Rother are the third Rother generation to live at the farm Chalklands in the beautiful Sussex Downs, operating not just the farm but several kilns used to turn chalk into quicklime. But the tranquility of rural life is shattered when John disappears on a trip, his car found abandoned with a few blood spatters inside… four miles in the wrong direction, with about thirty miles worth of gasoline expended. Was there an accident? Has he been kidnapped? Or is there something worse—related to John’s growing closeness to his brother’s young wife, or involved with a mysterious cloaked figure? Days later human bones are discovered in the quicklime made and sold at Chalklands. Inspector Meredith—promoted to superintendent at the end of the previous book, The Lake District Murder—is assigned this complex investigation, and he begins to untangle the clues that will solve this case.
What I really liked about the novel was Meredith’s investigation style—as a whodunit murder without a corpse, the book is very much about who committed this act and how, and Meredith finds himself up for the challenge. The reader gets an in-depth view of his investigation, a realistic one full of minor victories and defeats—pursuing one avenue, running into a dead-end, going back and trying again. Meredith’s youthful enthusiasm and vigor keep him going at a steady clip, even when he’s on the wrong track. Having a difficult time with the investigation, Meredith’s supervisor instructed him to “worry it like a terrier worries a rat,” and he does that very thing, finding enough evidence to overcome some early mistakes in his guesswork. This also gives the novel a realistic feel, as there are no convenient “intuitions” or “hunches” that lead Meredith to answers. Nor is any information withheld—the reader is always kept within the loop when Meredith finds a clue.
In the excellent introduction, Martin Edwards points out that this was the novel where John Bude began to hit his stride, displaying a more complex sense of plotting by throwing in more twists and turns and shifting suspicion between the characters. I agree with that assessment, and found the plot suitably complex despite the fact I had a hunch who the murderer was. Bude’s writing is unpretentious and unadorned, which does make it more readable; his strengths are characterization and plotting. The Chalklands setting is also well-realized, making the novel—like other Golden Age mysteries—a charming look back at the interwar era. The inclusion of (fictional) local mystery writer Aldous Barnet leads to a few witty in-jokes regarding the genre, and is also a way for Bude to help explain his style of detection.
I was impressed enough by The Sussex Downs Murder that I picked up the previous Inspector Meredith novel, as I found Bude a deft writer of the whodunit. His fine handling of a complex and well-crafted mystery makes for breezy reading, adhering to the rules of fair play by not withholding clues or twisting information. It’s very entertaining to chase the suspects alongside Meredith, watching him put all the pieces together and uncover the indicting evidence, and I think there’s enough there to interest the puzzle-lover. It’s certainly a treat for Golden Age/British mystery readers, and I’m very appreciative that the British Library is releasing so many of these otherwise forgotten authors in print and ebook.