Tuesday, December 23, 2014

John Bude’s The Lake District Murder

John Bude’s first mystery, The Cornish Coast Murder, appeared in 1935 with The Lake District Murder following later the same year. The Lake District Murder is a solid example of the golden age style and owes a very considerable debt to Freeman Wills Crofts.

Jack Clayton is a cheerful young man who seems to have everything to live for. He runs a reasonably profitable garage and he is about to be married. It therefore comes as something of a surprise when a local farmer discovers Jack Clayton’s body and appearances point towards suicide. He was sitting at the wheel of a car with the engine running and with a hosepipe running from the vehicle’s exhaust. The car is in a shed with the door shut. It’s about as obvious a suicide as you’re likely to find.

To Inspector Meredith matters don’t seem quite so obvious. If Clayton wanted to commit suicide why did he have his lunch ready on the table and the kettle boiling? People do not generally decide to make themselves a nice pot of tea and then halfway through change their mind and kill themselves instead.

While Meredith suspects murder he cannot as yet prove it, much less set about finding the murderer. There is one obvious suspect, Clayton’s partner in the garage business, but the man has a rock solid alibi.

Other curious facts soon come to light. Clayton has a good deal of money deposited in a bank account, too much money to be accounted for by his modestly successful business. His partner Higgins has been spending money very freely indeed. It occurs to Inspector Meredith that these two men must have had another source of income and that this additional income might well be the proceeds of some kind of illegal activity.

Meredith will eventually uncover a rather extraordinary criminal operation. His investigations will be directed as much towards this criminal operation as towards the murder.

The Lake District Murder is very much in the style of the mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts, the pioneer of the police procedural. The focus is on the painstaking routine police work of Inspector Meredith as he follows a whole series of leads, many of which turn out to be dead ends. Inspector Meredith is, like Crofts’ Inspector French, a somewhat colourless character but a determined and dedicated police officer who never gives up. 

It doesn’t take Meredith long to establish the likely identity of the killer. The novel is concerned mostly with the process of finding the evidence to justify an arrest and in order to do this Meredith must first find out how and why Clayton was killed. So the book is more of a howdunit and a whydunit than a whodunit. While this book follows the basic template established by Crofts there is one crucial difference. Crofts was not only able to describe the course of Inspector French’s investigations in intricate detail he was also able to throw in a series of plot twists that left the identity of the murderer in doubt until the end of the book. In other words Crofts wrote detective novels that focused on the who as well as the how and the why. Bude is interested only in the how and the why. This makes Bude’s novel not quite as entertaining as the best of Crofts’ work such as Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, Inspector French's Greatest Case or The Sea Mystery.

Having made this point it needs to be said in his defence that Bude handles the how and the why with considerable skill and ingenuity. He also uses the unbreakable alibi motif quite adroitly.

The setting is also used cleverly. While critics often accuse golden age detective fiction of an obsession with country houses and the doings of the upper classes that accusation cannot be made of this novel. Inspector Meredith’s inquiries take him to seedy lodging houses, isolated country garages and pubs rather than country houses.

While The Lake District Murder cannot be considered as being in the front rank of golden age detective stories it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted mystery and fans of the genre have cause to thank the British Library for bringing the works of this obscure mystery writer back into print in their excellent Crime Classics series. Warmly recommended.

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