The Case of the Bonfire Body (Christopher Bush)

By Christopher Bush

First published: UK, Cassell, 1936; US, Holt, 1937, as The Body in the Bonfire

Blurb (UK)

Bush - TCOT Bonfire Body.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The quest started with the finding of a headless, handless body in the about-to-be-lit bonfire.  Ere long another murder was committed: then another – yet alibis seemed impregnable.  Who was the culprit?  Was it the burglar-churchwarden?  Was it the Regent Street match-seller?  Was it the ex-convict?

Upon the problem Ludovic Travers exercised all his intuitive powers; Superintendent Wharton, C.I.D., all his cunning; Scotland Yard all the means at their command – but in vain until, by a brain-wave, Travers decided upon a gigantic bluff – and it succeeded.

My review

One of Bush’s better books. The well-constructed plot involves a headless, handless body in a bonfire; a dead doctor, who, according to circumstantial evidence, committed the first murder and was in his turn murdered by his victim; and an old case of burglary.  The solution involves SPOILER unbreakable alibis and several double identities on the part of both the murderer and the victim — what Travers calls “inverse double identity”. Bush’s solutions have a pleasing mathematical symmetry. The book seems to get lost in a November fog towards the middle, with too many unknown bodies and unknown quantities, like an algebraic equation where one must find x given that 1 + 1 + x + y = z, the fog clears, the quantities are assigned, to work out to a simple and logical solution.

One’s chief problem is the clue of the Limerick Crown.  SPOILER Travers accidentally gives to the beggar whom he believes is Johnson, and its discovery on an unknown tramp’s corpse proves that two people played the part of Johnson. While necessary for this purpose, it also reveals something unfortunate about Travers’s intelligence. SPOILER Considering that Johnson is a convicted thief, and that Travers believes he gave him the Crown, Travers’s belief that it will turn up elsewhere and his inability to see any connection between the two proves that he is an idiot. Still, this is ingenious, grisly and fairly tight.

Contemporary reviews

The Times (6th November 1936):

Mr. Morland thinks that “the unofficial detective…unless superlatively good, is a mistake.  He has been overdone, and…duplication to some extent is difficult to avoid.”  There is such an amateur in The Case of the Bonfire Body, a little irritating in his omniscience and improbable in his extreme familiarity with the police.  It must be admitted, though, that he does solve a remarkably complicated puzzle, full of revenge, mistaken identity, and gruesome corpses.


Observer (Torquemada, 22nd November 1936):

I would go almost anywhere with Ludovic Travers, and that I found it difficult, during the first few chapters of The Case of the Bonfire Body, to suit my pace to his is not Mr. Bush’s fault.  This practised detective writer, abandoning the quick grotesquerie of The Case of the Monday Murders, has concentrated on setting a slow and most praiseworthily difficult problem.  The jig-saw puzzle is a commonplace simile of crime criticism: here is a very simple-seeming picture to be put together, and Superintendent Wharton is, hopelessly, content with the pieces he has, while Travers demands just one more.  We ourselves are still ineffectively joggling the given bits when Travers is proved right, and then proved right again.  To shift the metaphor a little, The Case of the Bonfire Body is thimble-rigging at its most expert; the usual champagne quality of Ludovic’s exchanges with “The General” is a little lacking; but, after all, a good Bush needs no wine.


Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 12th December 1936):

SPOILER “Inverse double identity”, as the author’s amateur detective Travers calls it, occurs twice in this book’s puzzle-plot.  That is, A and B, being brothers and somewhat alike, pass as one, so that when A goes burgling, B’s presence elsewhere provides a good alibi.  So X, who had good reason to hate A and C, set out to kill A, killed B, put the corpse in a Guy Fawkes bonfire and was amazed to find A still alive.  He ought not to have been amazed, for he was doing the same himself.  He had engaged innocent Y as his double and alibi-provider.  He killed Y to hide the duplication, after he had stabbed C and left B’s finger-prints on the dagger, by using B’s cut-off hand.  Travers, trying to find out how many unknowns existed and which had killed which, very naturally felt himself in a “fantastic unreal world”.  However, the reader is kept interested, even if incredulous.


Books (Will Cuppy, 25th October 1936, 200w):

Smooth manner, slick plot and pleasant trimmings here, with sleuthing by the brilliant Ludovic Travers author of ‘The Economics of a Spendthrift’ and other ironic works.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 27th September 1936, 200w):

The story is so exceedingly complicated that, in the hands of a less skilful weaver of plots, it might easily have been hopelessly confused.  Mr. Bush, however, contrives to bring comparative order out of chaos at the end of a most exciting story.