The Case of the Purloined Picture (Christopher Bush)


The ‘purloined picture’ is by Zurbarán, and may hold a clue to the murder of a town councillor found bashed and buried in a woodpile. Travers, visiting a country cousin, spends most of his time playing bridge and buying antiques.

Bush produced a string of boring books after WWII: Missing Men, Second Chance (both 1946), Curious Client (1947), Housekeeper’s Hair (1948) and Seven Bells (1949). (From this period, only the lightweight Haven Hotel is moderately entertaining.) Purloined Picture is one of Bush’s more tedious books: the first four chapters, Travers admits, are “only a kind of prelude, and maybe a dull one at that”, and the rest of the book is equally dull. The problem is pedestrian, the detection vague, the suspects faceless, and the solution more convoluted than clever. Skip it.

The book was indifferently received in the United States. While critics acknowledged Bush’s ingenuity (“as brilliant a solution to a devious alibi-breaking puzzle as we are likely to see for some time”), they also complained of the slow pace: “Readers for whom the serial reporting of each infinitesimal fragment of a forward move has no charms will slowly fall by the wayside as the maze progresses” (New York Times); “Sleuth’s speculations and endless anecdotal asides make cold-molasses pace.  Fuddy-duddy, but O.K.” (Saturday Review of Literature).


Blurb

1949 Macdonald (UK)

When Ludovic Travers went to stay with his cousin Bernard Ampling, in the East Anglian village of Stepford, he forgot about crime in favour of golf, bridge and his host’s enthusiasm for antiques. As in all country places there seemed to be one or two curious local undercurrents – the feud between Councillor Drew and old Corbit for instance – but nothing to concern a mere visitor. Nothing to concern him until he made two discoveries on the same day. First, he found himself looking at a picture that should have been in a distant village church. Second, he was able to identify the sallow young man whose appearance about the district had seemed oddly familiar. It was a prelude both to murder and the timely arrival of Superintendent George Wharton. Our own readers label this new casebook as ‘Vintage’, and it is written in Major Bush’s best manner.


Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 13th December 1949): Ludovic Travers on a quiet holiday in East Anglia, catching the bus into Ipswich and going to bridge parties, runs into a neat little murder with strong vengeance motive.

Kirkus (1st January 1951, 60w)

New Yorker (20th January 1951, 110w): A superior puzzle, but a little unfair, perhaps, in that the reader couldn’t possibly solve it himself.

NY Times (Elizabeth Bullock, 21st January 1951, 150w): Travers combines his talents in a mixture of about six parts of brilliant analysis and one part inspiration, and comes up with as brilliant a solution to a devious alibi-breaking puzzle as we are likely to see for some time.  However, readers for whom the serial reporting of each infinitesimal fragment of a forward move has no charms will slowly fall by the wayside as the maze progresses.

San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 100w)

Sat R of Lit (27th January 1951): Queer goings-on in British village involve vacationing Ludovic Travers in riddles re stolen antiques and church pilferings — and finally murder.  Chess-puzzle type plus some erudition and plausible characters; but sleuth’s speculations and endless anecdotal asides make cold-molasses pace.  Fuddy-duddy, but O.K.

NY Herald Tribune Bk R (28th January 1951, 180w): Mr. Bush writes the sort of mystery which the publishers describe as ‘chess puzzles’.  One reads them slowly, but they are likeable because they pose a good mental problem.  This one, however, is more intricate than ingenious and not quite up to Bush’s usual standard.

Bookmark (March 1951)

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