“But how extraordinary! I mean, it’s like finding a cauliflower in your bed, or something perfectly ridiculous like that.”
—Ludovic Travers, The Case of the April Fools
The Case of the April Fools has an interesting premise at its core—an April Fool’s joke has gone horribly, horribly wrong. It’s a very good idea—in fact, Anthony Boucher and Denis Green used it in one of the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio plays, where Dr. Watson is enlisted by friends to play a trick on Holmes where the great detective investigates a fake jewel theft with clues planted that will point to none other than Holmes himself… but then the real jewel disappears!
However, something a little more serious than theft is involved in The Case of the April Fools. Ludovic Travers is invited by the rich Courtney Allard for a get-together at Allard’s country house. Everything goes splendidly, until Charles Crewe, one of Courtney’s guests, is found stabbed to death in his room. Courtney breaks down and says that this was not supposed to happen— Allard was supposed to die a fake death as an April Fool’s prank. Travers sees that Courtney is more or less useless, so he goes to call the police himself… but as he does so, a shot rings out! When Travers returns to the scene of the crime, he finds another corpse: Courtney Allard has apparently blown his brains out, but oddly enough, the gun is nowhere to be found.
This novel is written by Christopher Bush, and it’s a fine book. According to William DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, Bush was an illegitimate child who never was certain about his birthdate, but the official estimate was sometime in 1888. He was a teacher before he resorted to writing novels for a career, and his long-time series detective was Ludovic Travers, who apparently helped Superintendent Wharton solve crimes.
The Super, however, is not the “official” investigator in this book; rather, it’s Chief Inspector Bill Norris, who surprisingly solves the case. Maybe I’m being unfair to him, but it’s a noble tradition for the police detective to be upstaged by the amateur, and so, having the roles reverse is a rather interesting twist. In fact, Norris solves the case after a few domestic scenes give him some ideas. We see his wife and children, and their interactions provide Norris with the key to solving the riddle. In a way, it’s just like an amateur detective would have solved the crime, but it’s done in a domestic setting with a warm, loving atmosphere surrounding Norris. You can tell this man’s a hard worker who hates being away from his family and would do anything for them.
Unfortunately, that’s the most unconventional the book gets in terms of challenging misconceptions about Golden Age mysteries. Christopher Bush’s portrayal of England is a place where class is strictly separated and mutually respected. Servants are glad to be servants, gentlemen should behave like gentlemen, and so on. This slightly interferes with the plot a few times. In one instance, there’s a scandal that the late Mr. Allard was planning to invite a “Chinaman” to the house on the afternoon of his death! (Oh, the horror!) Two other instances involve the investigation process— it’s accepted as a matter of course Mr. Allard would never have shot himself under the chin (Isn’t it obvious?) and later, when a suspect claims he didn’t get up for tea, but rolled over and went back to sleep, it’s regarded as highly suspicious. In fact, the natural action is supposed to be getting up, drinking the tea, and then plopping back into bed again. (Because, good heavens, a real gentleman would never let his tea get cold!) These small moments of oddness don’t seem like much, but they called attention to the story’s artificiality and somewhat spoiled the spell the story weaves.
And it’s a real shame, because the story is a corker. It’s complex, fairly-clued, and very interesting. I briefly considered the real solution several times, but each time, I thought that although it explained several things nicely, it left some unanswered questions. Bush managed to explain all of these apparent inconsistencies, although to be honest, one of these explanations seems a little anticlimactic. The plot is deliciously complicated—it starts with strange posters that all of London is talking about, and it involves everything else from blackmail to rope tricks. With a little bit of work, this book could have even been converted into a fine locked-room mystery, but Bush decided not to, and to be honest, maybe he was right in doing so. The April Fools’ joke gone awry makes up for the conspicuous absence of a locked door and window—and maybe having all those ideas in one book would have been too much of a good thing.
I wouldn’t call The Case of the April Fools a masterpiece, but it comes tantalisingly close. The solution is elegant, but it isn’t a shocker— which would have been quite all right, except that Bush’s style draws attention to the artificiality of his world. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a complex and fairly clued country house mystery in the classic tradition, and while the solution is neat, if it went just a little bit further, I’d classify it as a masterpiece. As things stand, I think it’s an excellent book and a must-read for fans of the Golden Age, but not one of the all-time greats.