Death Makes A Prophet by John Bude

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Death Makes A Prophet by John Bude

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A classic country house murder mystery told with wicked lacing of wit.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: July 2017
Publisher: British Library Publishing
ISBN: 978-0712356916

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Two pages into this Crime Classic I had to check the first publication date. Reading the first two pages, it could easily have been written in 1967, or '87, or even (possibly as a pastiche) in 2017. Given that Bude's witty caper originally came out in 1947, it's slightly criminal that it's taken this long to resurface.

We start in Welworth – a Garden City – with a barely disguised name, one might think. If the initial description puts it in its time house over thirty years old. There are no slums monuments, garden fences, bill-hoardings or public houses. There is a plethora of flowering shrubs, litter baskets, broad avenues, Arty-Crafty Shoppes, mock-Tudor, mock-Georgian, mock-Italianate villas the follow-up is what creates the double-take on the date. There is, of course, a Health Food Store selling Brazil Nut Butter, cold spaghetti fritters, maté tea and a most comprehensive range of herbal pills and purgatives. Per head of population Welworth probably consumes more lettuce and raw carrot than any other community in the country.

I'm smiling already and I haven't reached the bottom of page 1.

It is in this charming place that one Eustace Mildmann has chosen to set up his Ancient-Egypt -derived religious cult: The Children of Osiris. Lest we take this endeavour with more seriousness than it warrants, everyone – even its adherents, we're told – quite happily refers to the belief system as Cooism.

Right from the outset think Christie-crime as re-worked by Wodehouse. We know that there is going to be a murder – the title itself gives that away. Indeed the title gives a fairly strong clue as to who is actually going to be murdered. After all Cooism only has one prophet and – quite shortly into the tale – an official Prophet in Waiting (which sounds not so much Wodehousian as Pythonesque) – so for a death to create a prophet…well, you get the drift. The map at the front of the book is a dead give-away as to where the deadly deed will be done. We may be starting out in Welworth, but somewhere along the way, we'll decant to the countryside: to the Old Cowdene Estate.

Don't be in too much of a hurry though. There is a lot of scene setting and possibility to work through first. Half a book's worth in fact.

If that feels like too much, for many modern readers it might be, which might be why it's taken so long to be revived. Looked at another way though, each of the chapters in the first half of the book really does help to lay the trail. One criticism levelled at some writers during the golden age of crime was that they 'cheated'. They didn't give the reader all of the information needed to 'work it out'. You can't accuse Bude of such low behaviour. Every clue is there is plain sight. The fact that each is also shrouded in misdirection and the scent of red herrings crosses the otherwise pristine landscape is surely exactly as needed.

Suspects abound. Motives are visible or shrouded depending on who you think the prime candidate is. There is even a trail which brings in to question whether the title should after all be taken quite so literally. Characters wallow in suitably pompous names: there's Mrs Alicia Hagge-Smyth (a prototype Mrs Bucket – except that she is actually very rich), the dippy drifty young acolyte Penelope Parker, the archetypal English squire, ex-officer-type, Hansford Boot (who spoke a kind of shorthand English peculiarly his own ) – not to mention the incomer, the oriental type, the aforementioned prophet in waiting , one Peta Penpeti – a genuine reincarnated ancient Egyptian – with caftan and fez just in case the aura isn't clear enough.

Meanwhile the lower orders are represented by Mrs H-S's secretary Denise and the chauffeur Sid Arkwright - and of course the police come in the usual shades of country bumpkin through to the city slickers of Scotland Yard (with a savvy Irish fellow with an unnecessarily emphasised accent thrown in for good measure).

I can't decide whether the fact that so many of the dramatis personae remind me of those in later TV series (Mrs Bucket/Lady Lynchwood, Major Truscott, Hugo Norton) means that they're stock characters – or whether they simply illustrate the point of the archetype – that they are endearing and slightly amusing because they are so true to reality: that we recognise if not individuals, certainly the 'type', we know them, we have come across them.

Either way, I defy any reader not to be coming up with their own cast list for the screen adaptation as they read.

The light-hearted wit continues through-out but succeeds in keeping out of the way of the murder mystery. Various mysterious people pop up where they shouldn't be, with breadcrumbs left on the pages but no easy explanations. There are several attempts at the deadly deed – shootings, knife throwings, all the drama you could wish for, before finally…

…not one body but two!

The physical cause of death is obvious…but who killed whom, in what order and why? Alibis and motives (present and missing) cause the usual degree of confusion, giving us all the time we need to work it out, while the policemen do their work of helping us along the way.

In a variant of Christie's 'bring all the suspects together' denouement, Bude has a case conference with his superiors to explain his reasoning in order to justify the arrest warrants for the guilty…just in case there's anything you still haven't puzzled out. And I confess, in my case, there was.

In many ways this is a book of its time. The limitations of technology and criminal investigation techniques mean that the plot would not work today. The whole class-based snobbery comes into play, but in its post-war form as something which is clearly being eroded. The thing that struck me through-out however was the thing that struck me on page one: just how fresh the humour remains. To be fair it's a kind of wit that doesn't appeal to all, but I loved it.

For more of Bude's brand of murder we can recommend Death on the Riviera or for more in the same vein I'm a great fan of Margery Allingham.

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