Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prima Aprilis!

“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.

5 comments:

  1. Good review, Patrick! I've read only one of Bush's detective novels, which was a disappointing and forgettable experience, but this is an enticing review and a convenient excuse to reacquaint myself with this obscure mystery writer. Unfortunately, for me, I have enough on my plate as it is. Oh well...

    However, I do feel a pang of envy that you're reading Connington's Case with Nine Solutions. So unfair!

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  2. It's all thanks to the University of Waterloo's interlibrary loan service, aka RACER. This actually came all the way from the University of Alberta, along with the Connington!!!

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  3. Oh you lucky you!

    I sometimes really despise this country, with its useless, up-to-date libraries and bookstores. Would it kill them to stock writers like Bush, Rhode and Connington? But that's a angry rant for another time and at least there came something special in the mail today. :)

    And if you're reading/listening to Rex Stout, give Not Quite Dead Enough a shot. It has Stout, Wolfe and Archie at their best and the titular story shows them as you've never seen them before. My favorite novellas from the corpus.

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  4. TomCat, I've almost finished BLACK ORCHIDS, and NOT QUITE DEAD ENOUGH is chronologically the next in the series. (You may recall that I started reading the series in order, although a mistake in ordering and a brief excursion to THE DOORBELL RANG somewhat spoiled that.) Conveniently, I have all of Stout's Wolfe books as audiobooks. Two minutes to transfer the next entry to my MP3 player, and hour of class, and then I will have started it. :)

    But then again, maybe I shouldn't blaze through only Stout. After all, there are other authors I have in audiobook form. There's Margery Allingham, Catherine Aird, and even one or two entries by one Paul Doherty...

    Life is cruel to me, with all these choices. :)

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  5. I attempted to read two of Bush's books and couldn't finish either of them. The first one (THE CASE OF THE MAGIC MIRROR, a very hard to find title that Nick Fuller ended up buying from me in an eBay auction) was just dull for most of the story but I admit to skipping to the end to find out how it all worked out. It was only then that I discovered the story had something in common with Christie's THREE-ACT TRAGEDY. The other was another rare title (THE CASE OF THE THREE STRANGE FACES) that took place on a train but was just too rambling for me to care about it and I closed the book after Chapter Three and never finished it. If ever I come across ...APRIL FOOLS I may pick it up. My rule is “Three strikes - you're out!” and I never return to an author after that. Bush has one last chance with me and this title may be it.

    I'm envious of the Canadian university interlibrary loan services! Chicago Public Library has an interlibrary loan service that is next to useless if you're not in academia. Everything I've ever wanted to read when I resorted to interlibrary loan was held in university libraries in Michigan or Wisconsin and none of them were allowed to go out to regular citizens like me. If I were an academic doing research it would all be a different story. Mere book reviews for a blog are not considered real research. Bah!

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