"Another accident in the unfortunate village of Bableigh...."
--The Case of the Unfortunate Village (1932), by Christopher Bush
Mysteries set in English villages remain perennially popular with fans of both classic detective fiction and the modern "cozy." I like English village mysteries a great deal myself, as readers of this blog will know.
Because of this interest I was long anxious to track down a copy of the directly titled The Case of the Unfortunate Village, by the frequently quite excellent Golden Age detective novelist Christopher Bush. (See my review of his first-rate Dancing Death here.) Well, I have now read the novel, which I have made available to Dean Street Press (who, I'm pleased to say, is reprinting the author), and here's my report.
Any classic mystery fan who reads Bush's Village will be immediately struck, I think, by similarities the novel has to mysteries by Agatha Christie and Gladys Mitchell, as well as to The Secret of High Eldersham (1930) by Miles Burton (aka John Street). The latter book was much praised by Jacques Barzun back in the 1970s and later myself, in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012). Eldersham, I should note, has recently been reprinted by the British Library.
Eldersham incorporates the witchcraft theme, drawing heavily on sociologist Margaret Murray's once popularly influential tome, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), which posited the existence of an organized witch religion throughout Europe. (Street's good friend John Dickson Carr brilliantly employed the witchcraft theme in several of his detective novels, but not so much in the village context as I recall.) Though long discredited by scholars, Murray's book was surely quite a boon to both lurid occultists and thrillerists of all sorts, from crime writers like Burton to film studios like Hammer.
As the dust jacket to Bush's Village suggests, the novel also plays with the witchcraft theme, inviting comparison not only with Burton's Eldersham but Christie's Murder Is Easy (1939), where putative Satanists also raise their heads. (Burton aka Street, who was fascinated with European folklore, takes the subject much more seriously than Christie, however.)
Another similarity between Bush's book and Christie's is the way a series of fatal "accidents" takes place in the respective villages. In Bush's book, there is an accidental shooting, a cycling accident, an accidental fall in a well, etc. Or are they accidents????
In Village Bush's amateur detective, Ludovic Travers, is drawn into an investigation into the strange goings-on at the village of Bableigh by an old public school friend, now the local gentleman and magistrate. Voltaire's philosophical novel Zadig (1747) plays a role in the solution, which is certainly something you don't encounter every day! Another unusual aspect of the novel is the way Bush frankly admits to choosing character names in a Pilgrim's Progress manner to illustrate their basic "types." (Parish, Faithful, Frail, Mould, Crome, etc.) It gives the book something of a Cluedo feel.
Although Bush doesn't dwell on the subject, he's forthright about sex in the tale, through the inclusion of a group of artists and sculptors in the village population. Those artists! Such randy folk they be. This forthrightness reminded me a bit of Gladys Mitchell's village mystery masterpiece, The Saltmarsh Murders, coincidentally published in 1932, the same year as Bush's novel.
Where Village is uncharacteristic of Bush is in its failure to present the reader a complex alibi problem, as was the author's wont at this time. (see the previous year's splendid Cut-Throat, for example.) However, Village is still an interesting read, if not, in my view, Bush at his very best.