Sunday, June 30, 2019

Drawn and Quartered: The Case of the Fourth Detective (1951), by Christopher Bush

“People will do all sorts of things for money.  It’s still the best motive for murder.”
--Christopher Bush, The Case of the Fourth Detective (1951)

          During the nineteenth century canny newspaperman William Henry Smith and his equally canny son, likewise named William Henry Smith, established a remarkable newsstand and bookstall empire--named, appropriately enough, WH Smith & Son--at railway stations across the United Kingdom.  Train commuters avidly devouring detective fiction and thrillers in the form of Hodder & Stoughton yellow jackets and green and white Penguin paperbacks during the twentieth century heyday of classic crime fiction in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties often had purchased their prose treasures at WH Smith & Son bookstalls.  The company remained privately held until 1948, when, upon the death of the third Viscount Hambleden (the original William Henry Smith’s great-great grandson), shares had to be sold publicly in order to cover the costs of the ravaging inheritance tax (aka “death duties”) that had laid waste to the company’s once burgeoning coffers.  This event--much noted at the time, when the tax policies of Britain’s lately-installed Labour government were the subject of contentious debate--inspired Christopher Bush’s 39th Ludovic Travers detective novel, The Case of the Fourth Detective (1951). 
          In previous detective novels that Christopher Bush had published since the Labour Party took power in 1945, the author through his genteel sleuth Ludovic Travers had taken potshots at Labour’s confiscatory tax policies, making withering asides about the depredations of “Comrade” Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps, successive Chancellors of the Exchequer in the Labour government during the years 1945-50.  However, in The Case of the Fourth Detective, Bush, like contemporary crime writer and Detection Club member Henry Wade in his detective novel Diplomat’s Folly, likewise published in 1951, put Labour tax policy front and center in his book.  Some writers of classic British crime fiction felt so strongly about the estate tax issue that they continued to elaborate upon the dread theme even after Winston Churchill and the Tories were restored to power in 1951, the modern British welfare state having proved a hungry creature indeed—see, for example, Henry Wade (yet again) in Too Soon to Die, 1953, and Margery Allingham in The Estate of the Beckoning Lady, 1955, whose titles suggest their author’s agendas (as does “Taxman,” the title of a 1966 Beatles song about the 95% supertax introduced by the government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Labour having finally ousted the Conservatives from power again two years earlier).  However, in The Case of the Fourth Detective tax policy feels like more like a key plot point than an occasion for a jeremiad. 
          In the novel Ludovic Travers--now the owner, since the sudden demise from a heart attack of Bill Ellice, of the Broad Street Detective Agency--finds his firm called in by Owen Ramplock, who has succeeded to the chairmanship of Ramplocks, the chain of thirty-four provision shops he has inherited from his late magnate father, old Sam Ramplock.  By the time Ludo arrives at Warbeck Grove, the block of palatial flats where Owen Ramplock resides when in the City, however, Ramplock lease on life has expired.  Ludo finds him on the floor of Flat 5 “as dead as they make them: deader than last year’s hit-song.  At the side of the skull was a bloody gap where the bullet had done its work.  Messy work, but only too efficient.”     Ramplock’s call was taken by the Agency’s manager--Jack Norris, formerly a Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard—and he reports that Ramplock’s last words on the phone were Prince!...What the devil are you doing here!  So now Travers, rather than taking on a juicy job with posh Owen Ramplock, is tasked with trying to find Ramplock’s killer, by helping his old friend Superintendent George Wharton and young Sergeant Matthews of Scotland Yard to discover the identity and whereabouts of the mysterious man named Mr. Prince, who left behind him at the scene of the crime a cryptic calling card.  In bold letters on the back of the card is a terse message warning You’ll be Sorry.  
          Certainly there were plenty of people whom Owen Ramplock--a former playboy turned POW in Italy who until recently had never faced up to real work in his civilian life--had antagonized.  There are, for example, his wife Jane, from whom he was estranged (it appears Ramplock may have had a mistress) but with whom he had recently tried to effect a reconciliation, and Jane Ramplock’s uncle, lately returned from Canada, a character with a large stock of (tall?) stories by the name of Solverson.  Then there are various officers and staff at Ramplocks: Henry Dale, managing director; Richard Winter, head of sales; Charles Downe, chief accountant; and Miss Haregood, Ramplock’s highly efficient secretary.  “A schoolmarm to the life was what I thought her,” dismissively comments Ludo of Miss Haregood.  He is rather more taken with company typist Daisy Purkes, whom he deems “cute as a kitten with a black nose,” and he finds opportunity over the course of the case to interview Miss Purkes more than once on the premises of Ramplocks.  It seems that the company’s directors were trying to determine just how to deal with the crushing death duties imposed on the business after the demise of old Sam Ramplock.  Before his untimely demise was Owen Ramplock trying to cut a deal for survival with Herringswoods, a mammoth concern with over one hundred shops in London and the Home Counties?
          Kevin Burton Smith of the Thrilling Detective website, a devotee of the American school of tough crime fiction, has asserted that while Travers’ murder cases “may lean towards ‘hard-boiled’ they don’t lean far enough.”  For murder fiction fans happily steeped in the more genteel traditions of Anglo-American detective fiction of the between-the-wars period, however, Bush may have timed things just right.  Certainly in The Case of the Fourth Detective Ludo seems to have developed something of the more casual attitude about sex which is associated with American hard-boiled detective fiction.  “Ramplock’s morals didn’t interest me beyond their possible connection with his death,” Ludo confides at one point.  “I’ve skidded about a bit myself in my time and in my furtive moments I’ve thought monogamy a harshly Christian virtue.”  Recalling Ludo’s romantic revelations in The Case of the Magic Mirror (1943) and Christopher Bush’s own amorous flings (at least before he settled down with his longtime partner Marjorie Barclay), this seems an honest enough assessment.  Perhaps now we know why Ludo’s wife Bernice appears to spend so much of her married life away visiting friends.
          By this time, indeed, Ludo seems in many ways to have merged with his creator.  In The Case of the Purloined Picture (1949), for example, we are reminded that Ludo’s native ground is found in East Anglia, just like the author’s, and it is claimed that Ludo is “middle class,” putting him closer in social origin to Bush, who was descended from generations of humble Norfolk farming stock (though the claim that Ludo is of middle class origins is belied by earlier novels).  On American book jackets in the 1950s, underneath photos of the author, readers were informed that Bush was, like Ludo, a Cambridge man, though in fact this claim was untrue.  Bush himself admitted in his memoirs that he had missed his chance to go to Cambridge; evidently that lost opportunity long rankled. 
          In having to forego his chance at obtaining an elite English education, Christopher Bush resembled another prolific mystery writer and Detection Club member who created a popular genteel surrogate detective and has been reprinted by Dean Street Press: E. R. Punshon.  With his Newcastle sugar broker father having gone bankrupt and apparently left his family, Punshon at the age of sixteen was forced, he recalled in mid-life, “to work in the accounts office of a railroad….After a year or two my office superiors told me gently that they thought I was not without intelligence but that my intelligence and my work did not seem somehow to coincide. So I thanked them for the hint, gracefully accepted it, and departed to Canada…”  During the waning years of the reign of Queen Victoria, Punshon had a great many larger-than-life adventures in Canada and the American West—including, he claimed, an escape from a ravening pack of wolves—before he returned to England and settled down to a writing career of over a half-century’s duration.  As any good novelist would, Punshon drew on these New World experiences in one of his early novels, Constance West (1905).
          In his later years, ill with a wasting terminal disease, the now elderly Punshon spent some time, in the fall of 1949, recuperating from an operation at Little Horspen, the charming East Sussex Tudor home of Christopher Bush and Marjorie Barclay.  (Later that year Bush succeeded ER Punshon as the Detection Club’s treasurer.)  The next year, when Bush was writing The Case of the Fourth Detective, he amusingly included, in the person of Jane Ramplock’s uncle Matthew Solverson, a character that may well have been partly modeled on Ernest Robertson Punshon:

          “He’s a delightful person but you may find him…well, just a bit original….He was a natural born wanderer.  He tells the most marvelous stories of all the things he did in Canada and the States.”
          “I know,” I said.  “Bar-keep, prospector, hobo, farm-hand—everything.”
          “But how did you know?”
          “I didn’t,” I said.  “But they always do, at least in books.”

        As for the matter of identity of the titular fourth detective, there are Ludo, Wharton, Matthews and….Well, why don't you see for yourself.  The novel has been reprinted by Dean Street Press, along with numbers 31 to 40 in the Christopher Bush series.

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