Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Second Chance

In a career spanning more than four decades Christopher Bush (1885-1973) wrote sixty-three mystery novels featuring his series detective Ludovic Travers. His books were published in the US as well as in his native Britain and were translated into various European languages. He was clearly a very successful writer in his day. He is now, sadly, almost completely forgotten and all his mysteries are out of print.

The Case of the Second Chance was the thirtieth of the Ludovic Travers novels, appearing in 1946. 

Travers belongs to the category of what might be called semi-professional fictional detectives. As a gifted amateur he had assisted Detective Superintendent George Wharton on several cases and had demonstrated his usefulness to the point where he ended up working with the police in a semi-official capacity. In fact in The Case of the Second Chance he becomes a more or less official policeman.

The structure of this story is interesting. The investigation takes place, intermittently, over the course of no less than four years. It all starts during the war. Travers is serving in the British army. In 1942 he is home on 14 days’ leave and naturally he looks up his old friend Detective Superintendent Wharton. Things are quiet at Scotland Yard, but not for long. Soon Wharton is called in to investigate the murder famous actor-producer Charles Manfrey. Naturally enough he suggests that Travers might like to tag along and Travers jumps at the chance. 

This is one of those murder cases in which the police are faced with too many suspects. Everyone who knew Charles Manfrey disliked him, and most of those who knew him disliked him enough to kill him. The problem is that all the most promising suspects have watertight alibis. The investigation looks promising for a while but eventually leads nowhere. The case is not closed but it is put on indefinite hold and unless some startling new evidence turns up it seems destined to remain unsolved.

This is however a case that never quite goes way. A couple of years later some new evidence does turn up, but it proves to be another dead end.

In 1946 both Wharton and Travers have more or less forgotten the Manfrey murder case. Travers is now back in civilian life and he plans to start a private inquiry agency with his old friend Wharton. Actually they are intending to take over an existing agency. Wharton had always intended to retire once the war was over but he had no intention of being put out to pasture altogether. With Wharton’s retirement from Scotland Yard still a few months away Travers has already started to learn the ropes of the private detective business. His first case seems fairly routine - a woman who is being blackmailed is afraid to go to the police so she puts the matter in the hands of Travers. Much to his surprise Travers soon realises that this case may have some connection to the long-dormant Manfrey murder case. In fact the link seems promising enough to bring Wharton in on it in his official capacity.

This is a fairly standard example of the golden age detective story and fits neatly enough into what Julian Symons disparagingly called the Humdrum School. In fact the writers of the Humdrum School were generally speaking extremely proficient practitioners of the art of the detective story, with the emphasis being very much on plotting (which accounts for the disdain of misguided critics like Symons). Christopher Bush was a very proficient practitioner indeed of this art and here he gives us a delightfully intricate puzzle plot with the added bonus of multiple unbreakable alibis.

Travers serves as the narrator and he offers us an Ellery Queen-style Challenge to the Reader. He goes further than that - he repeats the challenge several times. An author has to have a remarkable degree of confidence in his plotting to do something like that and Bush’s confidence is not misplaced.

Bush does employ several plot devices that modern critics would regard as being rather dated. Even in 1946 they were devices that seemed a little old-fashioned (and I’m not going to offer any hints as to what these devices are). Personally I don’t find this to be  problem. What matters is the skill with which they are employed and Bush has the requisite skill. I’d go so far as to say the novel’s old-fashioned feel is a definite asset - it adds to the fun.

Travers and Wharton make an effective and engaging detective team. Travers is wealthy, well-educated and decidedly upper-class and he holds the fashionably radical political views that go along with these attributes. Wharton was a working-class boy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and he naturally holds unfashionably conservative views. They are polar opposites in style, outlook and temperament but this has only served to strengthen their friendship and their mutual esteem. The good news is that Bush does not allow politics to intrude into the story at any point and the even better news is that this book is entirely free from social comment. 

The Case of the Second Chance shares the theatrical setting of the author’s earlier (and superb) The Case of the Tudor Queen. In both books this setting is more than just a colourful background - it plays a crucial part in the plot. 

The Case of the Second Chance is top-notch entertainment and can be highly recommended to fans of the golden age detective novel.

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