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Sunday, 10 December 2017

John Bude (1901-1957)

The  Golden Age
John Bude (1901-1957)
by Carol Westron

John Bude’s real name was Ernest Carpenter Elmore. He was born in Maidstone Kent in 1901. He attended Mill Hill School as a boarder, then studied at a secretarial college before becoming Games master at St Christopher School, Letchworth. One of the sports taught at the school was archery and, many years later, Bude used his knowledge of the sport as his means of murder in The Cheltenham Square Murder. It was during his time as a teacher that he became involved in drama, assisting with the school’s dramatic activities. This interest in drama caused him to join the Lena Ashwell Players as stage manager. Lena Ashwell was an actress and actor manager who, during the First World War had set up touring companies to travel to France and entertain the troops, and who continued her theatrical touring companies after the War.

It was while touring with the Lena Ashwell players that Bude started writing in his spare time. His first works were in the genre of humorous fantasy, all published under his own name. Bude’s first publisher was skeffington, a small firm that catered mainly for libraries. At this point, Bude was producing a book every two years. The Steel Grubs was published in 1928, This Siren Song in 1930 and The Baboon and the Fiddle in 1932. Even when his main focus was detective fiction, he never lost his desire to write in other genres and published seven books under his own name. In 1946 he published a children’s book, Snuffly, Snorty Dog, and in 1954, three years before his death, he published his last humorous fantasy book, The Lumpton Gobbelings, which describes an invasion by naked little people, who horrify the local community.

Around 1931 Bude returned to Maidstone where he produced and directed plays for the local dramatic society. It was there that he met his future wife, Betty. The couple married and had two children, Jennifer and Richard.

Remarkably, in 1933, at the age of thirty-two, Bude appears to have been in the position to become a full-time writer. In 1935 he turned to writing crime fiction and wrote thirty detective fiction books in twenty-two years,
before his early death in 1957, aged fifty-six. Bude was a popular writer, although he never gained election to the Detection Club, he was invited by John Creasey to become one of the founder members of the Crime Writers Association in 1953.

It seems probable that Bude’s early touring career had given him a taste for travel as well as familiarity with many locations in England and France. Certainly, he set his first four detective novels in different locations, which he used as a clever branding strategy: The Cornish Coast Murder (1935), The Lake District Murder (1935), The Sussex Downs Murder (1936) and The Cheltenham Square Murder (1937.) However, Bude’s use of these places was not a shallow gimmick. One of his great skills as a writer is his ability to get into the core of the locations he is using as his setting and he does not use the more obvious tourist destinations but the working heart of the area.

In Bude’s first crime book, The Cornish Coast Murder (1935), the action opens on ‘a dark and stormy night’ as thunder roars, lightning flashes and the waves crash on the shore at Boscawan, a village on the Cornish coast. In this first book Bude has two detectives who are not working as a team although the official investigator, Inspector Bigswell, is happy to pick the brains of an enthusiastic amateur detective, the Reverend Dodd. Dodd and his friend, the local doctor, are two long-term mystery readers who, for several years have ‘indulged this vicarious though perhaps perfectly common lust for crime stories.’

When a thoroughly unlikeable local magistrate is murdered, Dodd is delighted to try his skill at investigating a real murder mystery. As the local senior officer in charge of investigating the case, Bigswell is anxious to solve the murder before his superiors call in Scotland Yard, but he is clearly out of his depth, postulating one theory after another regarding the way in which the murder was carried out and displaying great inventiveness in the way he explains away any evidence that runs counter to his theory. As soon as one theory is proved untenable, he produces another one, rarely looking further than the obvious suspects. Dodd, with his greater knowledge of the local community and a mind honed by following fictional clues and suspects, is a far more adept detective than the professional police inspector, and a lot more rigorous in his methods, ‘“Guess is an inopportune word,” contested the Vicar. “Guess-work is no good in criminal investigation. Proven facts are essential. Shall we say the collecting of unalterable data coupled with a vivid imagination?”’
Dodd is not an arrogant amateur detective, despising the police and hoping to keep the glory of discovery for himself, although he is certain that Bigswell is wrong when he is certain the killer is a young woman Dodd has known for years. When Bigswell wishes to consult Dodd, the vicar is deeply honoured. ‘Never, even in his most optimistic moments, had he visualised a scene of this nature – himself in one arm-chair, a police officer in another, and between them … a mystery.’

Sadly, that is the first and last time the reader meets the Reverend Dodd. Bude had made his choice regarding protagonists and chose to focus on the police detective, although not Inspector Bigswell. Bude preferred to write about the routine of the police procedural, which reached its zenith in the meticulously crafted novels of Freeman Wills Croft, rather than overcome the inherent implausibility of an amateur detective continually becoming embroiled in murder investigations. At the end of
The Cornish Coast Murder, Dodd is so distressed by the success of his real-life investigation that he abandons reading crime fiction and devotes himself to matters spiritual.

Later in 1935 Bude published The Lake District Murder, in which he introduces Inspector William Meredith who was to become his series detective. This investigation into a murder in a lonely garage soon extends into a far wider pursuit of a criminal gang. Meredith is a far more competent detective than Bigswell, although still inclined to wild theories and following numerous red herrings as he rushes around the narrow lanes of the Lake District in (or on) his motorcycle and sidecar, as well as forgetting significant pieces of evidence, which he then recalls in the nick of time. However, he makes some clever deductions about the swindle the gang are perpetrating and deserves the promotion that he receives at the end of the book, which sends Superintendent Meredith, his wife and teenage son south to Bude’s next beauty spot to be allocated its share of murder and mayhem.

In The Sussex Downs Murder (1936) the newly appointed Superintendent Meredith has to deal with the mystery of a local farmer whose car was discovered bloodstained and abandoned off of a lonely lane, when the owner of the vehicle, John Rother, was believed to be miles away on holiday. John Rother lived with his brother, William, and William’s wife, Janet. This arrangement was not one of affection but of necessity because John and William had inherited joint ownership of the farm and could not afford to live elsewhere. The two brothers did not get on together, although John had a close and affectionate relationship with his sister-in-law. At first Meredith believes that John has met with an accident and will soon turn up but soon he has to concede that there must be some more serious explanation for John Rother’s disappearance and the lime kiln that is part of the Rother brothers’ family business takes on a sinister significance.

In these first three detective novels it is interesting to trace the way in which Bude grows more accomplished at laying subtle clues. It is also amusing that in The Sussex Downs Murder, Bude could not resist the temptation to have his detective pontificate about what constitutes good detective fiction, which he does by introducing John Rother’s friend, mystery writer, Aldous Barnet, to whom Meredith explains, ‘“But when it comes to a proper detective yarn give me something that’s possible, plausible, and not crammed with a lot of nice little coincidences and ‘flashes of intuition.’ Things don’t work that way in real life. We don’t work that way. At least, sir, that’s how it seems to me anyway.”’

Having set his first three detective novels in rural areas, Bude switches to Regency Cheltenham for his fourth book, The Cheltenham Square Murder (1937.) Bude provides a map of the fictional Regency square and offers details of all the residents, a mixed assortment of people with various quarrels and grievances. When one of their number is shot by an arrow, there is no shortage of suspects, many of the residents are passionate members of the Wellington Archery Club. Fortunately for the Cheltenham police, Superintendent Meredith is staying with his friend Aldous Barnet in Barnet’s sister’s house in the square and is soon called in to assist in an investigation that is about how the crime was carried out as well as who committed it. By situating his crime in the more closed community of a square of houses, Bude subtly altered the pace and tone of the book, but it is never in doubt that Meredith will get the killer.

After four classic mysteries, three of which featured William Meredith, Bude broke the mould with his next book, Loss of a Head (1938), which is situated in a boys’ school and has a sixth-form pupil as the detective. Despite its grisly title, the Head in question does not refer to death by decapitation but to the death of the Headmaster.

Although Meredith remained Bude’s series detective, he wrote several books that did not feature him and some with a different detective for a stand-alone book. It is difficult to get hold of copies of most of Bude’s books, apart from those republished by the British Library. To date the British Library have brought out six of Bude’s books, four of which feature Meredith.

Bude retained his taste for travelling around Europe and spent many happy holidays in France with his wife and daughter, collecting information on his travels, which he would later transform into fiction. Death on the Riviera (1952) is Bude’s twenty-second detective story and reveals all of his skill at depicting the spirit of a place with a deftness of plot and characterisation that has grown over the years. In Death on the Riviera Meredith is a Scotland Yard officer pursuing a forger and his gang of accomplices, he is accompanied by a junior officer, Acting-Sergeant Strang, and liaises with senior French police officers. Meredith’s mission is soon complicated by a violent death and it takes all of his experience and Strang’s enthusiasm to solve the crimes.

When reading
Death on the Riviera, I did feel some confusion about Meredith’s rank. From being a Superintendent, he had become a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. Was this because regional officers had to go into Scotland Yard at a lower rank? Had Meredith done something between 1937 and 1952 that merited demotion, in a book that I have not yet been able to read? Or was it author and editor error?

Bude was a writer who enjoyed a great deal of variety and in Death Makes a Prophet (1947) he was clearly out to have fun. He abandons his real locations for a fictitious one, although the newly created garden city of Welworth is clearly based on a real garden city of a not dissimilar name. It is here that Eustace Mildmann chooses to set up his new religion, derived from an Ancient Egyptian cult and called The Children of Osiris. Bude plays this situation strictly for laughs, in fact The Children of Osiris refer to their beliefs as Cooism. Death Makes a Prophet has been described as a novel by Agatha Christie revamped by P.G. Wodehouse.

Bude was a versatile, prolific and, at times, very funny writer. He died in 1957 at the early age of fifty-six.

The Cornish Coast Murder
Published by the British Library. ISBN: 978-0712357159.ASIN: B00IJYGJHM

The Lake District Murder
Published by the British Library. ISBN: 978-0712357166. ASIN: B00IJZBPL6

The Sussex Downs Murder
Published by the British Library. ISBN: 978-0712357968. ASIN: B00PQV6O6M

The Cheltenham Square Murder
Published by the British Library. ISBN: 978-0712356480.ASIN: B01KG0KN5U

Death on the Riviera
Published by the British Library. ISBN: 978-0712356374.ASIN: B018GDWI7K

Death Makes a Prophet
Published by the British Library. ISBN: 978-0712356916.ASIN: B073135562

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats, the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book Strangers and Angels published 28 November 2017 is set in Victorian England.  Also published in 2017 is her fourth novel in her scene of Crimes Series Karma and the Singing Frogs.  

To read a review of Karma and the Singing Frogs, click on the title

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