First published: UK, Macdonald, 1949; US, Macmillan, 1950
It was a bewildering problem that confronted Ludovic Travers when the spivs who threatened the barmaid, Maudie Brown, let fall word of a proposed robbery at the bungalow of a famous actress. And when that robbery took place and the actress was murdered and Superintendent George Wharton took an official hand, the problem became more baffling still. Why, for instance, did Maudie disappear? And why was there a crying baby at the bungalow? And what connection could there have been with a certain famous clown? And why the queer movements of a once famous conductor? The questions crowded in on Travers and Wharton, but readers of Christopher Bush’s “Case books” will not need reassuring that skilful and ingenious detection won the day and solved the mystery of the Seven Bells.
I am allergic to Christopher Bush’s later work. His basic ideas are often sound while not always original, but his execution in many cases is terrible – either they are too complicated (Climbing Rat) or almost unreadably tedious (most of his post-WWII stuff). Seven Bells falls into the latter category. The impersonation used by both the victim and the murderer is fairly clever although obvious from the beginning (it resembles the gimmick used in Tudor Queen), but getting to the end is hard work. Bush’s descriptions of late 1940s London, while lacking detail, are generally effective, and his descriptions of a novel and a stage performance are the most interesting parts of the book. Unfortunately, the detective story is very boring indeed. The blurb sounds interesting, suggesting several picturesque characters in the sort of vivid semi-comic fantasy written by Allingham, Carr or Mitchell, but none of the characters are more than sticks, and he doesnt set up relations between the characters, so we can’t care which one of them shot the actress, or even feel sympathy for the victim. I don’t want a mass of anxiety and romance, but strong characterisation is necessary to make a story worth reading.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 27th February 1949):
The best Ludovic Travers episode for several books. Murder of an actress depending on a complicated piece of impersonation. A bit uneven, but full of meat and hard to guess.
Sydney Morning Herald (J.J.Q., 23rd July 1949):
With a deceptively candid air, Ludovic Travers begins by presenting a vital clue, a change in the weather. Its pertinence is not revealed till the final scene.
It was a bright September morning (preceding several cold, wet days) when Travers, wearing a “rather natty tussore and a sports tie”, visited his friend, Bill Ellice, private detective. A little later he was listening to a story told by a lady with a crudely made up face, a prominent bust and a flowery hat. It appeared that she was Maudie Brown, barmaid at the “Seven Bells”, and that this Thursday was her day off. On the previous Tuesday she had been threatened by three spivs who suspected that she had overheard their plans for a robbery. She had heard scraps of their talk; there was mention of a car and jewellery and a word like “Grange” was repeated.
She had come “in a dither” and left somewhat relieved, refusing police protection. Shortly after there was an agitated telephone call from her, but suddenly the line went dead.
Next day Travers learned that a popular barmaid, Maudie Brown, was absent from the “Seven Bells”. On Saturday at noon, he was summoned by Supt. Wharton to “The Croft”, Carr’s Hill, and saw the dead body of Audrey Grange, “the only real woman genius the English screen has produced”. She had been shot through the heart, her house had been ransacked, her car was missing. Her death antedated the police discovery by 36 hours.
This is the story of a well planned murder, that went according to plan and without a slip. The inquiry falters and twists with much shifting of suspicion before the significance of the “natty tussore” and the weather becomes evident. The book is a reversion to the author’s old form and is much more effective than his recent, more intricate, confections.
New Yorker (11th March 1950, 150w):
Adroit, and perfectly fair.
NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 19th March 1950, 140w):
The plot this time, involving a barmaid and a handful of the greatest personages of the British theatre, is an unusually transparent one, which any cliché expert should solve in record time; but the mixture as before is guaranteed to prove (to those not allergic to it) a satisfactory sedative—and conceivably even habit-forming.
NY Herald Tribune Bk R (2nd April 1950, 200w):
Well written, literate and, like all the Ludovic Travers mysteries, extremely leisurely.