The Cheltenham Square Murder

Sticking with squares, can I recommend The Cheltenham Square Murder, which is one of those lovely ‘forgotten’ books from the British Library Crime Classics. Originally published in 1937, it was written by John Bude, whose work I always enjoy, with a nice introduction by the wonderfully knowledgeable Martin Edwards, and it kept me turning the pages from beginning to end – I simply couldn’t put it down. It is set, as the title indicates, in a square, in Cheltenham. There are ten houses forming three sides of Regency Square, with a road running along the fourth side, and a garden with grass, trees and flowering shrubs in the central space. The buildings are typically Georgian, and most have wrought iron verandahs or carved stone balconies. Everything appears very quiet, but there is discord beneath the surface…

Passions have been roused by a battle over the Tree, an old elm which overhangs one corner of the square, and is viewed by some residents as a dangerous ‘menace’ which could fall and kill someone, and should be pulled down immediately. Other people, however, feel it is doing no harm, has stood for 100 years, and will safely stand for 200 more. Bad feelngs escalate when the chop-it-downers take matters into their own hands, and have the tree felled.

Then Captain Cotton is killed – shot in the back of the head by an arrow, while visiting his neighbour, retired stockbroker Edward Buller. Could the dispute over the Tree have any bearing on the matter? Or could there be some other reason for the murder?

The cover of the BLCC edition at the top off the post is very classy, but I rather like the cover on this earlier version.

It is such an unusual death that tracking down the killer ought to be easy, but no-one has seen anything unusual, and it turns out that five of the square’s residents are fanatical memders of a local archery club. Futhermore, it seems no-one liked the dead man – he was a loud, brash, ‘vulgar upstart’, who drove a noisy motorbike, and was carrying on with someone else’s wife. And some of the residents are more than a little economical with the truth when questioned by police.

Fortunately, Superintendent Meredith is on hand, staying with a friend in the square, so he is drafted in to help the local police. But even he is baffled as he searches for the truth among all the lies, evasions and gossip. As so often happens in murder mysteries, nothing is quite what it seems. Red herrings are explored and hidden secrets revealed. Another murder is committed, and there’s an odd incident involving a dead sheep as the plot twists and turns towards a solution, which took me by surprise – but then I’m still something of a novice when it comes to crime fiction, and other people may spot the outcome at an earlier stage.

Bude is always good with the settings in his novels, and this is no exception. The square and its houses form an integral part of the plot, and Bude not only describes them in detail, but also provides a sketch map, which I found enormously helpful. And there is a lot of information about arrows as police try to work out who shot the arrow which killed Captain Cotton – and where it might have come from.

Superintendent Meredith is intelligent, quickwitted and courteous, and though he is amused by other people’s foibles and failings, he would never, ever let them know. Inspector Long gives the impression of being slow (he uses this as a ploy to extract the information he needs) but he is actually very shrewd, and very thorough. He ahd Meredith make a good team, bouncing ideas off each other and playing to each other’s strengths.

Chief suspect is Mr West, whose wife was involved with Captain Cotton, and has now left him. He has lost all his money, has left the square for lodgings nearby – and is a member of the archery club. Then there is nervy bank manager Hilary Fitgerald, who is behaving in a very strange way, and his beautiful young wife. They obviously have something to hide – but what? And fierce, mannish Miss Boon also seems to know something about the killing, but isn’t saying. Is it possible she is the killer? Or has she seen or heard a snippet of information whilst walking her dogs?

The vicar, the Rev Matthews, and fluttery spister sisters Nancy and Emmeline Watt are all unlikely candidates for the role of murderer, but they may hold vital clues. Only the ever-helpful DrPratt, urbane and professional, first on the scene at both murders, seems above suspicion… and besides, he has alibis for both occasions…

I’m always fascinatnated at the way Golden Age crime novels portray the way of life and social niceties of their day. Here, I was intrigued to find Sir Wilfred and his wife upping sticks and running off to the South of France – seemingly without being interviewed – so they won’t be bothered by ‘impertinent’ newspaper men or the police, and no-one says anything. It wouldn’t happen now – they’d get short shrift from Morse or Vera!

“God grant that I’m a democratic man – but there are limits,” says Sir Wilfred. “There are really. Some people seem to think that an affair of this sort is an excuse for familiarity.” His wife takes a similar view. “It’s really too bad of people to be so inconsiderate,” she says, and adds: ” Why that dreadful man had to be killed here, in the square.” Shades of Lady Macbeth there I think.

This is issued by British Library Publishing, so I’m posting it as part of my contribution to Read Independent Publishers Month #ReadIndie, which starts today, and is organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life.


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