THE Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, and his old friend Dr Pendrill are enthusiastic afficionados of detective novels. Each week they order six books from the library, which are delivered in a wooden crate tied with string. I love that detail, but did libraries really do this I wonder? And was it a public library, or one of those private lending libraries which were so popular in the first half of the last century? Anyway, they read the books, discuss every detail, and are not averse to offering advice on how the fictional sleuth should have handled the case (all of which must leave them very little time for work). So when a neighbour is shot dead during a violent thunderstorm, the duo decide to try their hand at a spot of real-life investigation…
The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude (one of those wonderful British Library Crime Classics) was a real page-turner, from begining to end, and I had absolutely no idea who the murderer was, so the reveal came as a huge surprise – if there were any obvious pointers along the way, I missed them! There is a clue, which seems unimportant, and its meaning gradually becomes apparent to the vicar thanks to his knowledge of local people and past events, but I don’t think ayone else could possibly have made sense of it.
The dead man is ill-tempered Julius Tregarthan, a retired magistrate disliked by everybody. He is so unpopular that despite the dearth of clues, there are suspects aplenty. His niece Ruth has quarrelled with him, and her boyfriend Ronald Hardy, an author with bad nerves, has also fallen out with Tregarthan. Then there is poacher Ned Salter who has vowed vengeance on Tregarthan for sentencing him to three months in jail, leaving his family homeless and penniless. And what about Cowper, the gardener and odd job man, and his housekeeper wife, who seem to be hiding something. Even the local nurse comes under scrutiny when her footprints are found on the clifftop path near Tregarthan’s home.
As so often happens in these Golden Age murder mysteries, everyone is behaving strangely, and no-one is telling the exact truth, so Inspector Bigswell, who is in charge of the investigation, has a tough job ahead of him as he finds himself ‘up against a first-class mystery’. No detail is too small as he tries to make sense of the discrepancies in the case – puzzling footprints, a missing gun, curtains that were were open when they should have been c;losed (or have I got that the wrong way round?). Then the writer Ronald Hardy (Ruth’s boyfriend) disappears… The plot twists and turns, and every time the inspector thinks he’s finally cracked it, he hits another dead end. It’s the vicar who finds the solution, using logic to prove what his knowledge of his parishioners has led him to suspect.
I enjoyed this – John Bude is a clever storyteller who creates credible characters, and crafts plots which keep you reading. His sense of place is excellent, and I love the details of everyday life – things that were normal when the book was written in 1935, but have now passed into history, Take that crate of books for example:
“With a leisurely hand, as if wishing to prolonging the pleasure of anticipation, the Vicar cut the string with which th crate was tied, and prised up the lid. Nestling deep in a padding of brown paper were two neat piles of vividly coloured books.”