Murder on my doorstep...

Murder on my doorstep…

“Dominating that part of the Sussex Downs with which this story is concerned is Chanctonbury Ring.”

It’s a sad and brutal truth that not everyone can be remembered. Today there are so many “celebrities” and notables that it’s hard to say which of them will still be being discussed in the future (although I’d probably put money on Queen Elizabeth II being more relevant than Jeremy Clarkson in a hundred years). However, it’s not a modern thing. Although there are now more opportunities for people to make a name for themselves than ever, even when the competition was less stiff, it could still be a challenge.

During the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” – the time between the two world wars where crime fiction was outstripping everything else, helped along by such luminaries as Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and, of course, Agatha Christie – some authors slipped by the wayside, through no fault of their own. One of these is John Bude, real name Ernest Elmore. His books seemed to get ignored but they have at last been reprinted by the British Library as crime classics. Being a born and bred Sussexian myself, I was of course intrigued by a book where I know all the locations (and it’s not the first time that’s been a pull on me) and so found myself exploring a murder that few people seem to have ever read since its publication in the thirties. Here’s what happened.

This is the story of brothers John and William Rother, and William’s wife Janet. They live and work at Chalklands, where they were lime-burners, providing the local area with lime. (Sussex is notoriously chalky in its geological make-up; we have some of the most limescaled kettles in the world.) One weekend, John bids William and Janet goodbye and sets off on a trip, but the following morning his car is found not far away with no sign of John near it, save a blood-stained cap. Superintendent Meredith is put in charge of the case and begins to interview the people who saw him last.

Not long after, a couple of builders at a nearby mansion discover bones in their consignment of lime. Originally thinking they’re just dog bones, they happen to ask the owner of the mansion, Professor Blenkings, an scientist of anatomy who realises that the bones are actually human. More to the point, they may very well belong to John Rother…

As Meredith begins to track down the rest of the skeleton and Blenkings is given the task of restoring it to a human shape, word gets around the local villages of the death and soon the finger of suspicion begins to wag, with John’s brother William right in its path. But when further disaster strikes, Meredith finds he’s reached a dead end with the case, and now only the evidence of the locals can bring the murderer to justice…

Christie aside, I read little from before 1980, so it took me a few pages to get into the style and language, but there’s no doubt that Bude can write. He is engaging, crafts excellent characters and knows just how to add humour at the right moments. Meredith is a charming detective. Unlike modern coppers, he lacks a drinking problem and a dysfunctional family and seems more concerned about where his next meal is coming from. He’s very human – he makes mistakes but he accepts them and continues on, determined to seek out the truth.

The crime itself is handled marvellously, making good use of real locations and not letting the reader get too far behind in what’s going on. The answers are all there if you’re smart enough to see them, but the twist is still good enough that I only realised it a couple of pages before the reveal. The tension raises gradually throughout the novel and it keeps you in suspense before explaining exactly how it was done.

One thing I found notable about this though was how gory it was. It’s not that it’s wall-to-wall organs and chainsaws, but the idea of finding human bones and then recreating the skeleton from them is a bit macarbe. I think it’s simply because I’m used to Christie where the murders are always so clean and bloodless. (Almost) no one bleeds in a Christie murder; here, barely a page goes by without a bloodstain cropping up.

Bude’s – or rather Elmore’s – name should be among those from the Golden Age and perhaps if he’d lived a little longer (he died at fifty-six) it would be. But it wasn’t to be and his books got forgotten. Hopefully, now that they have been rescued and reprinted, the world can rediscover his talent. This was a man who knew the business and didn’t hold back. A startingly wonderful book set in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Very, very good.

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