Thursday, December 25, 2014

Fancy-Death Ball: Dancing Death (1931), by Christopher Bush

Ah, those English Christmas season country house parties: so delightful and so deadly!

At the house party at Little Levington Hall in Christopher Bush's Dancing Death there is theft, along with three most unnatural deaths. Fortunately Ludovic Travers, a director of the publicity firm Durangos, Ltd. and an accomplished amateur detective, is on hand to investigate!

Dancing Death is something of a Golden Age tour de force.  In what is effectively a prologue (so popular in crime novels these days), "Ludo" Travers is prevailed upon to write a manuscript about the recent mystery at Little Levington Hall; seven pages of vignettes follow, presaging the dire events at Little Levington Hall.

If you ever get to read a copy of Dancing Death--and I suspect you might, even though it now seems a hard book to find on the net, since, I have noticed, books I write about sometimes end up being republished by the British Library (more on this in a future blog post)--and you seriously want to try your hand at solving the mystery, read carefully!

Little Levington Hall is owned by Martin Braishe, inventor of a gas in which the War Office has taken a great interest, on account of its "amazingly lethal properties."  Braishe, who enjoys social life, is throwing a seasonal fancy-dress ball that will become, tragically, more of a fancy-death ball.

After the ball nine guests remain at Little Levington Hall (plus a goodly number of servants, some of whom play major roles in the story):

1. George Paradine, a medico in high places
2. George's formidable wife, Celia
3/4. The mercurial stage actress Mirabel Quest and her lofty sister Brenda Fewne, vicar's daughters ("Brenda seemed to have left the vicarial nest by crossing the lawn to the duke's castle; Mirabel, to have eloped from a back window with the frowsty leader of a pierrot troupe")
5. Brenda Fewne's husband, Denis, a novelist
6. Ludovic Travers, amiable, horn-rimmed gent and keen solver of mysteries
7. John Franklin, a friend of Ludo's and a detective with Durangos
8. Tommy Wildernesse, young man-about-town
9. Wyndham Challis, a stage producer dismissed as a "cheap little vulgarian" by Brenda

On the morning after the ball, many an unsettling thing is discovered: two guests are dead, some of the guests have been burgled and a cylinder of Braishe's incredibly lethal gas has gone missing.  Oh yes, and Little Levington Hall is snowbound and the phone lines are cut!  John Franklin goes to try to reach the police on foot, while Travers holds the fort and indulges his penchant for amateur detection.

There's something of a plateau in the middle section of the novel, where I couldn't help thinking how John Dickson Carr would have generated more excitement from this classic material and that Ngaio Marsh would have done more with the characters (see her stab at a wintry country house murder, Death and the Dancing Footman, 1942).

However, there is a third death, and when the police finally arrive and Travers is able to do some longer-distance detection things move quickly to what is rather a smash climax. I was truly impressed when it became clear to me how dexterously Bush had constructed a bamboozling, cannily-clued plot.

Did I mention there's a floor plan (relevant), a ground plan (showing the fatal pagoda where one of the deaths takes place) and an illustration of the last scrawled words of one of the murder victims? Be still my mystery lover's heart!

You just may be seeing Dancing Death again in my Best Books Blogged in 2014, set to commence on the 26th.  Expect to see more about Christopher Bush--who was born on Christmas day 129 years ago, by the way--next month as well.

Previous Christmas Numbers at the Passing Tramp:

2011: Mystery in White, by Jefferson Farjeon (since gone on to greater things)
2012: Murder for Christmas, by Edith Howie
2013: Do Not Murder before Christmas, by Jack Iams


  1. Merry Christmas, Curtis! Thanks for all great posts and books you introduce me to!

    1. Thanks and a Happy New Year to you, Peggy Ann. I'll be highlighting my favorite blogged books from the year over the next few days.

  2. Well, I certainly hope the BL gets round to this one - can we prevail on Martin Edwards to put in a good word do you think? Have a great Christmas.

    1. Oh, the British Library is familiar with this blog, so I think they get the message one way or another.

  3. Sounds like a good book and I look forward to more on Bush. Thanks for all the suggestions of Christmas books, I am always looking for more to add to my list. Mystery in White is the only one I have heard of, since it was recently reprinted.

    And have a good Christmas Day and a Happy New Year.

    1. You too, Tracy! Bush would be a good candidate for reprinting, especially since many of his earlier books are very hard to find now.

  4. I was quite impressed by his Case of the Tudor Queen. Christopher Bush may well be another unfairly neglected golden age writer and I agree he'd be perfect for the British Library series.

    1. He was a very popular detective writer who doesn't deserve to have been oop for over forty years. If Doriel Hay and John G. Brandon can be reprinted there can't possibly be any reason--relating to quality anyway-- for not reprinting Bush.

  5. Happy Christmas Curt. I've read at least one by Bush - perhaps the Tudor Queen mentioned above, but I love me a fancy dress ball (they make for the best blog entries for me....) so I'll be looking out for this one. I remember liking a certain brittle 30s atmosphere about his books: weekend cottages in the country, having a place on the river, theatrical riffraff mixing with the nobs.

    1. Moira, I should have mention the harlequin is a major motif in the book, also a balloon seller, which is something unusual. You could do some great things with the costumes, I'm sure!

      "a certain brittle 30s atmosphere about his books"

      An apt description!

    2. Harlequins! I love them at a fancy dress, this becomes even more of a must-read. Shades of Lord Peter in Murder Must Advertize.

  6. I always have the same reaction after reading this blog. OUTSTANDING. Great information about books I would have no introduction to otherwise. Problem here, I WANT this book, yet you say it will hard to find. Nothing better than these great mysteries that The Passing Tramp features. Continued praise for all the hard work this blog requires. Happy New Year.