First published: UK, Cassell, 1934; USA, Morrow, 1934, as The Tea Tray Murders
A case just to the liking of Ludovic Travers: mysteries to unravel and the problem of a double murder to solve; Supt Wharton is in his element too. Tenant, a master of a County School, is found poisoned on the premises, and a few hours later Twirt, the Principal, is found brained in the grounds.
The essential clue stares investigators in the face, but how convert it into proof? Other clues are plentiful – too many, in fact, and Castle, another master, clutters up the trail. Nevertheless, Travers analyses and Wharton plods on till both arrive at the connection between the two murders and clear up the mystery.
Curiosity is keenly alive throughout.
Bush was a schoolmaster before he became a full-time writer, and, judging by this one, he hated his work. The school and suspects are so gloomy and dreary that one can’t really care about the havoc wrought by the murdered headmaster, or which one of them finally coshed him over the head. The detection is so bogged down in who was doing what at a particular minute that it becomes tiresome; and the solution is borrowed from SPOILER Chesterton’s “Hammer of God”, but without the inspiration. The solution to the first murder is genuinely surprising.
Saturday Review (25th August 1934):
One pedagogue poisoned, another bashed in cranium. Shakespearean quote reveals all to Ludovic Travers. Few current yarns boast such a clever criminal. Travers’s deduction surpasses earlier exploits and sub-plots are diverting. Read It.
Books (Will Cuppy, 2nd September 1934, 230w):
Here’s a thoroughly readable, amusing work featuring that sometimes dithering yet dependable Ludovic Travers as sleuth—assisted by the just as reliable Superintendent Wharton.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 2nd September 1934, 300w):
A highly entertaining yarn.
Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 8th September 1934, 270w):
It should be enjoyed by any one who likes a neat murder story neatly told. At the finish there isn’t a loose end lying anywhere about. Everything that is said, done or thought falls quietly into place.
Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 9th September 1934):
Murder in School
The Case of the Dead Shepherd occurs in a school. For some reason, nearly all school murder stories are good ones—probably because it is so easy to believe that murder could be committed in such a place. I do not mean this statement to be funny or sarcastic: nobody who has not taught in a school can possibly realise the state of nervous tension and irritation that can grow up among the members of the staff at the end of a trying term, or the utter spiritual misery that a bad head can inflict upon his or her subordinates.
Woodgate Hill County School was (we must believe and hope) exceptionally unfortunate in its head, who was a brute without a redeeming feature; and one feels too much sympathy with his slayer to be anything but heartily sorry when Mr. Ludovic Travers detects him. The plot is ingeniously worked out, though it has perhaps one or two rather unfortunate features, and the characters of the staff are well indicated. I should not place the book on quite the same level as Mr. Bush’s Case of the 100 per Cent. Alibis, as it runs on rather more conventional lines, but it is thoroughly engrossing, well written, and full of legitimate puzzlement.
Observer (H.C. O’Neill, 16th September 1934):
Mr. Christopher Bush is an old hand; but this is the most arresting story he has given us. There are two murders, and one of the victims is the most unsavoury character one could wish. Superintendent Wharton and Ludovic Travers, the inspired amateur, come to the rescue, and, if it is the latter who succeeds in discovering the solution of the problem, he does so legitimately.
Times Literary Supplement (27th September 1934):
This is a detective story which cannot be accused of any unfairness to the reader except perhaps in the title—for where you might expect a harmless man dead upon the Downs, you find two masters of a country school (one of them “the Head”) dead on the premises. Foreseen, however, or unforeseen, from the title-page, the circumstances are set out with enough fullness to keep the reader alert and interested, and the two deaths (one by poison, the other by a blow) are skilfully interwoven in their reasons and their occurrence. Especially ingenious is the working-down of the Head’s end to the exact minute it occurred without any forcing of movements on the part of the characters or any strained coincidences. The solution, however, strikes one as rather an arbitrary thrusting of the crime on to the darkest of the various horses, and his get-away makes a weak conclusion. The amateur detective, Travers, seems to be allowed quite extraordinary latitude by his police friends, and his method is, from the point of view of excitement, too much hanging about and talking to people until an inspiration strikes him. The author’s English takes some queer turns: for instance, a moustache is “a hairy adumbration above his mouth” (p. 26). Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly readable and interesting story.