- By John Bude
- First published: UK, 1942, 1944
- Availability: British Library, 2020
Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901–57) wrote nearly 30 detective stories as “John Bude”. Several of these have been reprinted by the British Library, with introductions by Martin Edwards. Bude seems to have been a member of the Realist School, specializing in methodical police detection and unbreakable alibis. He was a protégé of Christopher Bush, to whom he dedicated one of his books.
Bude was a surprisingly good stylist for a minor writer. His prose is sharper and wittier than many of his better-known colleagues; he could wield metaphor and simile with aplomb; and his love of language and eye for rural eccentricities reminded me a little of Dylan Thomas or Stella Gibbons.
As a mystery-monger, however, he seems to lack inspiration. Both Death Knows No Calendar and Death in White Pyjamas (published as a double volume) are mediocre, relieved by skilful prose and characterization.
Calendar is a ‘sealed-room’ murder: painter Lydia Arundel is found shot in her studio, an apparent suicide. Major Tom Boddy, a detective fiction enthusiast, thinks otherwise, and sets about discovering the truth. The old boy is far more entertaining than the puzzle. The murderer is evident well before the murder is committed (a line in Chapter IV spills the beans), and declared halfway through; Major Boddy’s task is to prove it – a far less interesting problem. The locked room solution lacks creativity, and possibly fairness; the Heath-Robinson device for arson is cleverer, but it’s workmanlike and practical rather than brilliant. (Fortunately Bude provides a diagram.)
But how well Bude writes! Here, for instance, we find the crime scene described as one of the artist victim’s paintings, and a lovely parody of the portentous omens in Macbeth and Julius Caesar.
“By the next morning, the rain had ceased, the clouds had thinned away and the sun was hot behind the haze. A miasmic humidity lent to the parish of Lower Beckwood an almost jungle-esque air, through which loomed the heavy foliage of elms and chestnuts and the outlines of strange beasts. Sounds came but faintly through the mist and the commonplace parishioners moved through the web of their activities like figures in a dream. It was the perfect morning for the reception of tragic news. The storm had passed and now came the still and unreal aftermath, a stock-taking of Fate’s latest and grimmest prank. That Lydia Arundel had gone from their midst, swiftly, dramatically, during the night was a fact that was borne but slowly into these bucolic minds. She had been part of the village pattern, a vivid thread drawn through the drab warp of their lives. Her extinction was resented.” (p. 332)
“By noon these malicious whispers were hissing like arrows through the haze, criss-crossing the warm-tiled roofs, slithering this way and that, rising and falling in swift parabolas, but always in the end to find their mark…” (p. 334)
Pyjamas is a masculine counterpart to Margery Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning: a country-house murder with a cast of theatrical performers. Bude regards his creations with a cynical eye, including an ageing Lothario who falls in love for the first time and a catty, sadistic designer who enjoys being hated. He is particularly good on his suspects’ petty jealousies, vanity and backbiting. Murder is committed halfway through, and the book declines. As in Clifford Witting’s Measure for Murder, police investigation replaces character. The murderer is evident immediately, both because of their character and an obvious clue about telephones. Again, Bude is not interested in concealing his killer; the guilt is gradually revealed to the police. The alibi is more elaborate than ingenious, but the murder method is clever.
Death Knows No Calendar
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 19 December 1942): There was a time when a mystery of crime detection could be casually introduced into novels as an episode. Unfortunately for Mr. Bude readers nowadays feel disappointed if a detective story does not run true to form. When the identity of his murderer ceases to be a mystery about half way through, we may feel, no doubt unfairly, that the author has simply been unable to keep it up. The wealthy portrait-painter, who has died from a bullet wound, has not committed suicide. She has been fervently hated by at least four people, but quite plainly only one of them was capable of bloodshed. “How?” keeps interest in the problem alive for a while; the rest is hue and cry, sudden death for one, wedding bells for four. Any strain upon the intellect slackens page by page.
Death in White Pyjamas
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 20 January 1945): There may be a prejudice against murder mysteries among play actors. If so it is based on the idea that an atmosphere of make-believe hardly lends itself to the cold-blooded study of deeds of violence in grim earnest. Mr. Bude overcomes this objection. Nearly all his characters are members of a theatrical company, but as they are not on the stage but in the home of their “backer” when the killing is done they are able to assert themselves as real people. Mr. Bude has a happy knack of exploring odd corners of human nature. The very mingled feelings of the experienced lover at finding himself uncontrollably in love are so well described that crime becomes of smaller account.