First published: UK, Cassell, 1933
Was the village possessed of a devil? Death, destruction, demoralization was its destiny till Travers, by progressive deduction and detection, discovered the awful truth.
I first read this in 2004. Back then, TCOT Unfortunate Village was one of Bush’s rarest. It had never been published in the US, and not a single copy of the English edition was for sale on ABE. (There still isn’t.) I ordered it on inter-library loan from my university, couldn’t take it out of the building, so read a few pages each day, in between lectures and tutes. Not the best way of reading a book!
Now Dean Street Press has reprinted it, with an introduction by scholar Curtis Evans. (You can read his thoughts on the novel here.) Better still, all of Bush’s 63 detective novels featuring Ludovic Travers will be reprinted over the next year. Good wine may need no Bush, but this is cause for celebration!
In many ways, it’s atypical. Many of Bush’s early books are intricate formal fair play puzzles, with a murder or two in the opening chapters, suspects with cast-iron alibis, and lots of physical clues.
Several deaths occur here, but they’re all put down to accident. There are lots of small mysteries: Why are all the villagers behaving so oddly? What is the awful reason of the vicar’s visitations? Is sculptor Mould as rotten as his name suggests? Who poisoned Yeoman’s dog, and threw the corpse into Mould’s garden? Who planted the forget-me-nots? And why did Mould apparently make a statue of Lucifer?
Travers and his friend Franklin – Bush’s other series detective, who fades out in the 1930s – look for something that will explain the situation. They try to understand the pattern.
We’re not, I think, meant to be surprised by the solution. Bush really hands the reader the principal clue at the end of Chapter 9, telling him that the answer is in Thomas Parnell’s poem “The Hermit”.
SPOILER The poem is about a hermit who, unawares, goes travelling with an angel. The angel steals from a generous host and gives it to a miser; strangles another man’s baby, and drowns his servant. These crimes all turn out to be good deeds in disguise. It’s the workings of Providence. “Yet taught by these, confess th’ Almighty just, / And where you can’t unriddle, learn to trust!”
Is this the first time a detective story was written around literature? It’s the sort of thing Michael Innes or Nicholas Blake would do, but their first books are still a few years off. (And I realize with a shock that I haven’t read Innes, Blake, Margery Allingham, or Edmund Crispin for a decade.)
Although not quite aligned with those writers, Bush still stands apart from the British orthodox school of Freeman Wills Crofts. True, his stories involve unbreakable alibis, in the Crofts tradition, but his sensibility is quite different to Crofts or other members of his school, such as John Rhode or Henry Wade. He has more feeling for poetry, theatre, and music than for those writers’ technical processes. There is, though, one trap of which Rhode would be proud.
His books are also more character-based; the detectives try to understand the suspects’ behaviour. There’s even a psychological reading of art. Why does Miss Crome change how she paints? “The change which this particular person was driven to make was due to an overwhelming sex-experience,” says a Harley Street specialist. It’s the kind of line you wouldn’t get in Crofts, but might get in Gladys Mitchell or C. Daly King. Village, though, is sexually frank for the genre and period. Travers even comes upon a couple making the beast with two backs.
I look forward to reading the rest of Bush’s novels over the next few months, particularly such rarities as The Cases of the Flying Ass and Climbing Rat!
Sunday Times (24th July 1932):
SHOCK AND SENSATION
“It is often urged against detective novels which have a considerable number of characters that the reader finds a difficulty in separating them.” So says Mr. Christopher Bush in a note at the beginning of The Case of the Unfortunate Village, and he reintroduces the old-world device of making “the name of each character an easily recognisable tag”. It is, I think, a good move, though the choice of tags must be made with some care. Luckily none of the names in this new story of his seems at all unusual—what better name, for instance, for a woman-painter than Marion Crome?—and when we go to the village of Bableigh with those amiable partners-in-detection, Messrs. Travers and Franklin, we know very soon Who’s Who.
Yet we are obliged to share Mr. Dryden’s bewilderment at the queer and sinister change which has so recently come over his village. Why, in the first place, has Miss Crome taken to painting such revolting pictures? What has caused the vicar, once so jolly, to become so morose? Why have the two ladies at “the Pleasaunce” quarrelled and separated? More peculiar is the affair of the burial of half a dog and the planting of all those blue flowers.
It is a very curious story, and it is built up in a clever way. There seems to be no rational explanation whatever, and yet the one which is ultimately provided is by no means impossible. For myself, I was expecting something of the kind, though it is only fair to add that when it did come I was not disappointed.
Argus (23rd September 1932):
Skilfully preparing the reader’s mind by suggestion and innuendo, Mr. Bush tells of a normal and peaceful Sussex village which comes under some baleful and malign influence that affects every soul among its inhabitants. Accidents happen, lives are lost, and though there is no apparent relation between any of the gruesome incidents the feeling arises that they are all an outcome of the same mysterious cause. Mr. Bush depicts the slow growth of the fear that falls upon the people as the impalpable influence spreads. It is a well-constructed story, and what is more remarkable than the imaginative work is the clever manner in which it is proved eventually that the whole series of events is due to perfectly natural causes.