“If there are many roads that lead to perdition, then there are as many that lead to salvation.”
I’d read 5 John Bude novels before arriving at Death Makes a Prophet. There was an unhappy marriage and a dead husband down on the farm in the 1936 The Sussex Downs Murder. Then I read the 1952 Death on the Riviera in which serial character Scotland Yard’s Inspector Meredith is hot on the scent of a counterfeiting ring. Then came 1935’s The Cornish Coast Murder along with a vicar who reads too many crime novels. The Lake District Murder, published in 1935, is a grimmer novel, but then humour returned in The Cheltenham Square Murders (1937) which concerns a handful of residents in an upscale neighbourhood. There’s adultery, bankruptcy, nosy neighbours and what’s more someone is taking their archery club membership to extremes by shooting the dashing Captain Cotton (wife stealer) through the head with an arrow.
Even though Death Makes a Prophet is now my sixth John Bude novel, I was unprepared for the comedy here. The novel concerns a religious cult centered in the town of Welworth:
Welworth is not an ordinary town. It is that rarefied, mushroom-like, highly individualistic conglomeration of bricks and mortar known as a Garden City. There is no house in Welworth over thirty years old. There are no slums, monuments, garden-fences, bill-boardings or public houses. There is a plethora of flowering shrubs, litter baskets, broad avenues, Arty-Crafty Shoppes, mock-Tudor, mock-Georgian, mock-Italianate villas. There is, of course, a Health Food Store selling Brazil Nut Butter, cold spaghetti fritters, maté tea and a most comprehensive and staggering range of herbal pills and purgatives. Per head of the population, Welworth probably consumes more lettuce and raw carrot than any other community in the country. A very high percentage of the Welworth élite are not only vegetarians, but non-smokers, non-drinkers and non-pretty-much-well-everything-that-makes-life-worth-living for the less high-minded citizens.
So Welworth is a town that attracts those who wish to live a certain lifestyle. These days we might say it’s a hippie community, or a crystal-waving town. While there are 57 (!) religions in Welworth, the most “queer, somewhat exotic sect” is the Children of Osiris. Founded by Eustace K. Mildmann, the sect is also known as the Cult of Coo–or the religion of Coosim.
Clearly Bude is having great fun here with his subject. The timid Mildmann, a former bookseller, is Coo’s prophet and a sincere believer while the “financial prop, the true director of policy” is the wealthy, bombastic, insufferable Mrs. Alicia Hagge-Smith.
When the novel opens, Mrs Hagge-Smith claims to have had a vision of holding an “al fresco Convention”–a “gathering” of all of Children of Osiris (who will be housed in tents) at her country estate, Old Cowdene. Mildmann is horrified but the crafty, slimy Pen Penpeti, the so-called prophet-in-waiting, who claims to be a reincarnation of a “priest in the temple of Amen-Ra” is on the sidelines, flattering and stroking Mrs Hagge-Smith’s bloated ego. There’s a rift within the sect, and with money, power and influence in the offing, there will be murder….
A ferment was at work; small hostilities were growing, vague jealousies were gaining strength; little intrigues swelling into obsessions. And far off, no more than a dark speck beyond a horizon, wasn’t there a nebulous hint of approaching tragedy in the air?
Death Makes a Prophet is the funniest book I’ve read so far from the British Library Crime Classics. Bude very wisely mixes his characters, so we get sincere believers of Coo mixed with the opportunistic (Penpeti) and those who just need a paycheck (Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s secretary). Plus then there are those innocent bystanders such as Mildmann’s adult son, Terence who is given sixpence a week pocket money and is forced by his father to wear “rational clothing.” Terence dreams of steak and kidney pudding, sneaks out for secret meat binges, and falls in love. Great fun.