“The usual assault by a homicidal maniac.”
Since I already own a few of the British Library Crime Classics titles, I was delighted to hear that Poisoned Pen Press is publishing this vintage series here in America. Vintage crime titles are great fun–after all there’s very little in the way of forensics, and you can forget high-tech crime lab stuff, and that just leaves us with plot and character.
John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore (1901-1957) belongs to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Inspector Meredith appears in many of his crime novels, and he’s here in The Sussex Downs Murder, from 1936, quite a lurid story for its times–although it’s handled with a de-emphasis on the lurid, and stresses more village life and various local personalities. The murder concerns John Rothers, one of two brothers who jointly own a farmhouse, Chalklands, considerable farm land and also lime-kilns based near the farmhouse. Now if your ears pricked up, as mine did, at the mention of lime, well you’re onto the scent already.
The Rothers were once much more affluent and titled, but they’ve come down in the world, and with the “shrinkage of a considerable family fortune,” a “certain antagonism” existed between the two remaining descendants: John and William Rother. Perhaps it’s because they’re so different, or perhaps it’s because they must share their inheritance. Or perhaps it’s something to do with Janet Waring who married William while it’s rumoured that she preferred John….
So there’s our recipe for murder, and so the story commences.
John drives away from Chalklands for a holiday in Harlech, but his bloodstained car is later found abandoned, and Inspector Meredith is called in to investigate.
Bude sets the scene for this tale of murder against the “little parish of Washington“:
It is a typical village of two streets, two pubs, a couple of chandlers, a forge, an Olde Tea Shoppe, and a bus service. Although the parish is bisected by the main Worthing-Horsham road, it has managed to retain in the face of progress all those local peculiarities which have their roots in the old feudal system of government. There is still a genuine squire at the Manor House to whom the group of idlers outside the “Chancton Arms”, whatever their politics, instinctively touch their hats; whilst the well-being of the church rests in the conservative hands of the Reverend Gorringe, as typical a parson as ever trod the pages of Trollope.
Bude very carefully maintains this image of the tranquility and quirkiness of village life throughout Inspector Meredith’s investigations, so that the gruesome tale of murder is seen as a pathological, atypical incident. One harmless villager chases butterflies and eats at the vegetarian guest-house, The Lilac Rabbit. The constable has to bicycle around with news as very few people have a telephone in their homes, and servants who see everything but say little play a considerable role.
Even though the modern reader will be well aware that crime detection in the 30s was an entirely different matter from today’s CSI, nonetheless it still shocks the sensibilities to read about people casually picking up bones or shoes and there’s never a whisper about preserving the integrity of the crime scene. The crime solution comes down to Inspector Meredith’s wits, and John’s disappearance is initially thought to be, perhaps, a kidnapping, “an unfortunate criminal habit which has been imported” from America. This reflects the attitudes of the times and the fear that the gangster-ridden streets of America might become a fixture in Britain too.
While I guessed the solution very early in the novel, accompanying Meredith through his investigations was great fun. My favourite sections were the scenes between Inspector Meredith and local crime writer, Aldous Barnet, who is also a close friend of William Rother. Barnet makes an enthusiastic audience for Meredith, and there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek jabs about the profession of writing about crimes with Mr Barnet deciding that he “could work this case up into a novel.” Barnet and Chief Constable Major Forest act as sounding boards for Meredith’s various, sometimes elaborate and lengthy theories about the crime throughout various phases of detection. Meredith is an interesting, albeit low-key character–a family man who hates to miss his high-tea and discusses his cases with his family. While many aspects of the story are quaint (at one point, Meredith ask who cleans Janet’s shoes), and while crime detection is so low-gadget, one wonders how any crimes were solved, it’s clear that human nature remains the same throughout the centuries:
You see, Mr Barnet, crime is bound up with human weakness, human greed, human misery–at every turn in an investigation you come up against the human element.