Sunday, May 27, 2018

Memorial: A Mystery Writer at War, Christopher Bush and His Ludovic Travers Military Mystery Trilogy

Christopher Bush in the Second World War
After the Francophile Christopher Bush completed series sleuth Ludovic “Ludo” Travers’ nostalgic little tour in France (soon to be overrun and scourged by Hitler’s legions) in the pair of detective novels The Case of the Flying Ass (1939) and The Case of the Climbing Rat (1940), Bush published a trilogy of Ludo Travers mysteries drawing directly on his own experiences in British military service: The Case of the Murdered Major (1941), The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942). Together this accomplished trio of novels constitutes surely one of the most notable series of wartime detective fiction (as opposed to thrillers) published in Britain during the Second World War. 

There are, to be sure, other interesting examples of this conflict-focused crime writing by true detective novelists, such as Gladys Mitchell’s Brazen Tongue (1940, depicting the period of the so-called “Phoney War”), G. D. H. Cole’s Murder at the Munition Works (1940, primarily concerned with wartime labor-management relations), John Rhode’s They Watched by Night (1941), Night Exercise (1942) and The Fourth Bomb (1942), Miles Burton’s Up the Garden Path (1941), Dead Stop (1943), Murder, M. D. (1943) and Four-Ply Yarn (1944), John Dickson Carr's Murder in the Submarine Zone (1940) and She Died a Lady (1943), Belton Cobb’s Home Guard Mystery (1941), Margaret Cole’s Knife in the Dark (1941), Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (1943) and Died in the Wool (1945) (both set in wartime New Zealand), Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger (1944), Freeman Wills Crofts’s Enemy Unseen (1945) and Clifford Witting’s Subject: Murder(1945).  Yet Bush’s three books seem the most informed by actual  martial experience.

death in captivity--murder strikes at No. 54 POW Camp
Like his Detection Club colleague John Street (who wrote mysteries as John Rhode and Miles Burton), Christopher Bush was a decorated veteran of the First World War (though unlike Street his service seems to have been entirely in administration rather than fighting in the field) who returned to active service during the second “show” (as Bush termed it), albeit fairly briefly.

53 years old at the time of the German invasion of Poland and Britain’s resultant entry into hostilities, Bush helped administer prisoner of war and alien internment camps, initially, it appears, at Camp No 22 (Pennylands) in Ayrshire, Scotland and Camp No 9 at Southampton, at the latter location as Adjutant Quartermaster. 

In February 1940, Bush, promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain, received his final commission: that of Adjutant Commandant at a prisoner-of-war and alien internment camp established in the second week of the war at the recently evacuated Taunton’s School in Highfield, a suburb of Southampton. 

Throughout the United Kingdom 27,000 refugees from Germany, Austria and Italy (after the latter country declared war on Britain in June 1940) were temporarily interned in camps like the one in Highfield, on the assumption that they might pose potential threats to British security.  Bush thus held a controversial wartime position, like John Street during the First World War, Street after the armistice having become involved in British "information" (i.e., propaganda) efforts in Ireland during the Black and Tan War.

Bournemouth refugee Fritz Engel--a Jewish Austrian dentist who in May 1940, after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and inaugurated his sweeping “Collar the lot!” internment policy, was interned at the Highfield camp--recalled the brief time he spent there, before he was transferred to a larger camp on the Isle of Man, for possible shipment overseas.  “I was first taken into Southampton into a building belonging to Taunton’s School,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir, “already surrounded by electrically loaded barbed wire….” (See Tony Kushner and Katharine Knox, Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century, 1999.)

Similarly, Desider Furst, another refugee Austrian Jewish dentist wrote in his autobiography, Home is Somewhere Else: "[Our bus] stopped in front of a large building, a school, and the bus was surrounded by young soldiers with fixed bayonets.  We had become prisoners.  A large hall was turned into a dormitory, and we were each issued a blanket.  The room was already fairly crowded....We were fed irregularly with tea and sandwiches, and nobody bothered us.  We were not even counted.  I had the feeling that it was a dream or  bad joke that would end soon." He was wrong, however: "After two days we were each given a paper bag with some food and put onto a train [to Liverpool] under military escort.  The episode was turning serious; we were regarded as potential enemies."

Taunton's School, Highfield
today part of Southampton University
Soon finding its way in one of Bush’s detective novels was this highly topical setting, prudently shorn by the author of the problematic matter of alien refugee internees.  (Churchill’s policy became unpopular in the UK after the Arandora Star, an internee ship bound for Canada, was torpedoed by the Germans on July 2, 1940 leading to the deaths of nearly 1000 people on board, a tragic and needless event to which Margaret Cole darkly alludes in her pro-refugee wartime mystery Knife in the Dark.) 

All of Bush’s wartime Travers trilogy mysteries were favorably received in Britain (though they were not published in the U. S.), British crime fiction critics deeming their verisimilitude impressive indeed.  “Great is the gain to any tale when the author is able to provide a novel and interesting environment described with evident knowledge,” pronounced Bush’s Detection Club colleague E. R. Punshon in his review of one of these novels, The Case of the Murdered Major, in the Manchester Guardian.


Christopher Bush in the First World War
For his part Christopher Bush in August 1940 was granted, after his promotion to the rank of Major, indefinite release from service on medical grounds, giving him time to return full throttle to the writing of detective fiction.  Although only one Ludovic Travers mystery appeared in 1940, the year the author was enmeshed in administrative affairs at Highfield, Bush published seven more Travers mysteries between 1941 and 1945, as well as four war novels attributed to "Michael Home," the pseudonym under which he had written mainstream fiction back in the 1930s. Bush was back in the saddle--the mystery writer's saddle--again.

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