Death on the Riviera starts with Bill Dillion crossing from England to Dunkirk, reminiscing of the last time he was there—with German dive-bombers circling overhead. Now he’s heading for the French Riviera—in specific, the Villa Paloma. That is also the destination of Inspector Meredith and his compatriot, Sergeant Strang, en route to assist the French in capturing a wanted criminal. There’s a ring of smugglers now dispensing counterfeit pound notes, tied to known forger “Chalky” Cobbett, wanted by Scotland Yard, and Meredith has been tasked to capture him. As fate would have it, everything seems to revolve around the Villa Paloma, the residence of the eccentric Englishwoman Mrs. Hedderwick and her odd assortment of guests. More than one of these guests has something to hide, and with tension building between them, there’s more than enough motive and means for murder…
Mystery readers expecting a corpse in the early chapters may be disappointed, as the novel starts out focused on the ring of smugglers and counterfeiters running rampant in the Riviera. Since one of the suspects may be residing at the Villa Paloma, the lives of the Villa’s inhabitants begins to take up more and more of the plot, establishing their relationships and developing their characters. It involves a complex love triangle between Bill Dillon, Tony Shenton, and a young woman named Kitty; meanwhile, Strang falls for Mrs. Hedderwick’s niece in a whirlwind romance. While it can be a bit melodramatic at times, with developments revealed much like in a soap opera, it’s both necessary and important to build these characters and their relationships. Soon after the smuggling ring is blown open, one of the two men is murdered—but was it Bill who did Tony in, or did Tony knock off Bill? Meredith leaps at the chance to exercise his investigative prowess, and a series of theories are created and discarded before the truth is revealed.
It’s interesting to read one of Bude’s later books, written almost twenty years after he introduced the Superintendent Meredith character. In the last Bude novel I read, The Sussex Downs Murder, Meredith was still an ambitious young detective, returning back to discuss his findings with his superior while eagerly jumping to conclusions. By the time of Death on the Riviera, Meredith has developed into a character more steady and sure of himself, and departs for France with his own subordinate—Sergeant Freddy Strang— in tow. Stylistically, Bude’s writing is still very light and marked by adept characterization, dry humor, and a keen sense of plotting, but much has changed from his earlier books. Instead of solving murders in tranquil 1930s England, his characters are investigating a smuggling ring in the exotic Riviera. And throughout the novel, there’s an underlying sense of how the Britons and French are living in the aftermath of World War II.
Indeed, World War II is usually the demarcation line where the Golden Age of Mystery begins to end. But with Death on the Riviera, John Bude returned to his classic pre-war form with longstanding series character Meredith, while focusing on a new and exotic mystery. This is perhaps Bude writing at top form, working not one but two criminal plots into the book, including a complex web of relationships, and of course including his trademark characterization and wit. While it is not flawless—the Villa Paloma can be a bit melodramatic soap-opera-y, and the smuggling/counterfeiting plot didn’t quite have the same intensity as the murder—this is a very strong book. It’s a charming and fun read, one I’d be quick to recommend to fans of vintage mysteries.
Title: Death on the Riviera
Author: John Bude
Publisher: British Library/Poisoned Pen Press
Release Date: 1 March 2016
First Published Date: 1952
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (review copy via NetGalley)
MSRP: $12.95 ppb / $9.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-1464205699 / B01BHCD3YY