Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Case of the Green Felt Hat - Christopher Bush

Here's a good example of giving a writer another chance. I attempted to read two Christopher Bush books in the past and each time I was put off by his tendency to drag out the proceedings with lots of tangential chit chat and extraneous business that had little to do with the real story. I never finished those books. Recently I found a rare title in Bush's large output and thought I'd give him one more chance hoping this wouldn't be his third and final strike. The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939) proved to be one of his more engrossing efforts – a detective novel in which it appeared nearly everyone had an alibi the day and night the crime was committed. Throughout this book (and presumably the entire series) Ludovic Travers, Bush's amateur sleuth, has the uncanny ability of "alibi busting" and it is mentioned repeatedly by those who have worked with him in the past. His talent is put to impressive use in this book in which so many alibis appear to be completely fabricated but turn out to be true and others which seem to be iron-clad are painstakingly smashed open.  As an added bonus the book also turns out to be part of a popular subgenre from the 1920s and 1930s – it's a golf mystery.

The story also appealed to me since it happens to have a resonance for me as one of the many people living with a wrecked retirement fund and who is attempting to recover from the financial ruin of the American economy. The murder victim is an ex-con who moves into a peaceful little village of Pettistone that just happens to be populated with several people who were targets of his financial chicanery. They all lost lots of money in his crooked investment schemes. Hanley Brewse unknowingly chose the town thinking he could start his life anew with a new identity, but he is unmasked by none other than Travers who has a memory for criminal faces and their checkered pasts. He reveals Brewse's past to Colonel Feen, Pettistone's chief constable, who for a lark then tells the town gossip, a nosey Parker by the name of Anthony Guff-Wimble. Guffy (as he is deprecatingly referred to by all) is shocked and outraged. He gathers together others from the town who he knows were robbed by Brewse and together they decide to oust the man from Pettistone.

Of course, you can guess what happens. Someone decides to help Brewse exit Pettistone in a manner that will ensure he never returns. He is found dead in a pile of cow manure with only his feet sticking out near a blazing woodshed. When the fire is extinguished and his body is extracted from the dung heap it is discovered that Brewse has been shot squarely in the chest. (A fitting fate I can easily fantasize for many of the avaricious executives of Enron and Shearson Lehman Brothers.) The scene where the police and Travers try to figure out if the body was meant to be incinerated in the dung heap is hysterical. A local farmer educates the city men on the not so inflammable properties of manure:
"But suppose there was paraffin or petrol in it?"
Haylock grabbed another handful or two of the manure heap and smelt it, then pushed one handful under Feen's nose.
"There you are sir. Do you smell for yourself. There ain't no paraffin nor nothing like that."
"Excellent," Feen said, and again was only too glad to take his word for it.
Travers, Colonel Feen, and George Warden (a visiting Scotland Yard inspector), spend much of their time interrogating the suspects, examining alibis, and weeding out the lies from the truth.  The detection is not just confined to routine questioning, though much of that is complex and wily. There is some devious and amusing business with making plaster casts of shoe tread patterns found near the dead body. Travers dreams up an elaborate ruse in order to trick one of the suspects into stepping into fresh mud so that he can later make casts of the shoe prints to match up against those found at the crime scene.  Remarkably there are two automobile breakdowns on the same day within the vicinity of the crime that will be the focus of much discussion. There is also a neat map (see below) that serves as the frontispiece. The map hides a very subtle clue that eventually leads Travers to the final solution. An acute reader may also spot it, but it eluded me.


An act of vandalism adds additional mystery. A team of slanderous pranksters paint an insulting message outing Brewse as a former criminal and disguise it as a movie advertisement. "Now Showing CONVICT 99" is part of the elaborate sign found painted on Brewse's home. The artwork is discovered the morning after his body is dragged from the manure pile. Travers and crew decide it must have been done prior to the murder by more than one individual based on its size and detail as such a message would've been meant to be seen by Brewse and would hardly be a worthwhile effort had it been done after the man was killed.

Throughout the story golf also plays an important part. Similar to the novels of Herbert Adams Bush uses golf as a social setting that serves as a stratagem in talking about the crime. The dialogue during these golf matches is not the only thing that will help in unmasking the culprit. A keen reader will do well to pay attention to the numerous descriptions of expert golfing as well as errant shots and where missing golf balls turn up. The game of golf itself will play a very important part in the final solution. The manner in which the murderer planned the crime is devious but it will be complicated by the intrusion of both accidental and purposeful misdirection on the part of other suspects who monkey with evidence.

In this novel Travers is newly married to Bernice Haire, a former actress. Bernice joins her husband in the detection by acting as confidante to several of the women characters who all invite her to play golf. Her conversations provide Travers with some pertinent background that help him in his "alibi busting." Bernice's sister Joy, a talented impressionist and actress herself, makes a cameo in the final pages. Joy will also play an important part in the investigation by using her acting skill and her very malleable vocal cords. Travers' clever plan to employ her talents, however, nearly backfires when yet another unexpected event takes place.

I'm glad I gave Bush a third go. This turned out to be a real page turner with some expert misdirection, a cleverly thought out crime with all its oddities and red herrings explained, and a couple of well done surprises in the end. The detection is varied and unusual. The characters are colorful and original.  Just when you think someone like Norman Quench, Pettistone's vicar, is just another detective novel cliche Bush surprises you when the vicar turns out to be one of the finest golfers in the bunch with some impressive trick shots. The book has a lot of nifty surprises like that. The overall flavor is more modern than many of the books of this pre-WW2 era. Finally, and most importantly for me, nothing is superfluous here, everything has a purpose, which is the way I prefer a genuine detective novel from this era.

The Case of the Green Felt Hat is the 20th book in a series which began in 1927 and ran all the way into the late 1960s. This particular title is available in both UK and US editions. A few copies are out there, but tend to run in the pricier range with the cheapest offered at $31 for a reading copy of the Thriller Book Club edition and the most expensive priced $296 for a copy of the Cassell first edition described as "very good" with no other supporting information.  I think the higher prices are due to this particular title's scarcity and the sudden cultish status of Christopher Bush among collectors of Golden Age detective fiction.

7 comments:

  1. http://deathcanread.blogspot.it/March 29, 2012 at 3:46 AM

    Great writer of solid bases, especially skilled in disassembling unassailable alibi. It is curious that Bush shares this peculiarity with Freeman Wills Crofts that follows, although a few years. The fact that both have this feature and are members of the Golden Age, says it all about the importance of the writers of the '20s as part of the scene of crime fiction.
    Have been translated in Italy two great novels of Bush:
    in 2009, "Dancing Death" (1931, Omicidio a Capodanno) and last month, "The Case of the Dead Shepherd" (1934, Una buona tazza di tè).

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  2. Pietro -

    I have the US version of TCOT DEAD SHEPHERD called THE TEA TRAY MURDERS, similar to the Italian title I think is translated as A GOOD CUP OF TEA. (I'm learning a bit of Italian now thanks to you!) I'll be reading that and another Bush book I bought in Jackson, MS. Maybe I've finally have found the good ones! So Bush will be getting his due on this blog after I have nearly gave up on him.

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  3. "John's trying Christopher Bush again! Ha ha!" (My first reaction on seeing this blog entry)

    Interesting that golf plays a part in the solution. The only golf mysteries I've read only use the fairway as a location for stumbling upon a body.

    Wonder which author will be the next to survive your "three strikes you're out" guideline...

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  4. This sounds really good, John. Should I dare email you and risk my very limited book buying budget??

    I never heard of Christopher Bush before you began discussing him now why an I NOT surprised?

    Speaking of golf, are you familiar with Aaron and Charlotte Elkins golfing mysteries? Just thought I'd mention them. :)

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  5. http://deathcanread.blogspot.it/March 29, 2012 at 5:28 PM

    If you talk about Golf and Mystery, it seems to me that the writer of the reference is absolutely Herbert Adams, author of The Body In The Bunker, 1935, or The Secret of Bogey House, 1924, or even Death Off the Fairway , 1936. Or so many others, always about the killings and golf.

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  6. Just come across this post, John. Sounds as though he drew the basic idea from the Victorian Watson case which also influenced Freeman's 'The Case of Oscar Brodski'.

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  7. Hi John
    Very interested to read all these comments about my Gt Uncle's work! With the Parish Council Chair of Gt Hockham Norfolk I am currently writing his biography. He wrote 85 books in 42 years so a few more to read as yet! About 60 of these were detective stories and, under a pseudonym, novels of the East Anglian countryside and novels of Military Intelligence in WW1 when he served as a Major. I have most of these now. You are all very good literary critics and I confess that much of my work to date has been on the family history side so it is very illuminating to have these books come alive through your eyes. Many thanks Avril

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