An English country home? Check. A powerful blizzard that isolates that house and its residents? Check. A missing cylinder of deadly gas? Check. An unexpected house burglary? Check. Telephone wires cut? Check. Strange noises in the night? Check. Murder most foul? Check and double-check.
Sound like the formula for a classic Golden Age detective novel? It is. And, in these happy days when publishers are bringing back some of the very good authors who wrote during that Golden Age, it's also the perfect setting for murders. Plural. The book is Dancing Death, by Christopher Bush, and, in this week before Christmas, it's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Christopher Bush is another of those authors, quite popular during the Golden Age but forgotten almost immediately after their deaths, whose books are now being rediscovered and re-published by enterprising publishers such as Dean Street Press (which provided me with an electronic version of Dancing Death for this review). Bush was the author of 63 mysteries, all of which feature Ludovic Travers, the director of a publicity company who is also, quite fortunately, an amateur sleuth of considerable distinction. In Dancing Death, originally published in 1931, Travers is one of the house guests at a costume ball at Little Levington Hall, the home of scientist and inventor Martin Braishe. When a sudden snowstorm threatens to isolate Levington, Travers is one of the few guests who remain after most of them are sent off to make their ways home before the snow begins to pile up in earnest. When that snowstorm grows quickly into a powerful blizzard, and Levington is quite cut off from its neighbors (and, especially, from the police), a robbery is discovered - someone has stolen that cylinder of a powerful poison gas invented by Braishe. And, shortly thereafter, the bodies begin to turn up. There is no easy way to call for help - the phone line has been cut. Travers sends one of his friends off through the massive snowdrifts to try to make his way to the nearest village to summon the police – something which takes several days to accomplish. In the meantime, of course, Travers is able to put his amateur detective skills to work, so that when the police do arrive – in the person of Travers's friend, Scotland Yard Superintendent Wharton – Travers is able to be of considerable help in figuring out not only what has happened, but how and also why.
Along the way, there are some very nice Golden Age touches to gladden the hearts (and minds) of readers. There’s a floor plan of Little Levington Hall, another small map of the area right around the hall itself, and even a graphic reproduction of a scrawled message left by one of the victims. All are quite relevant. Travers is an engaging protagonist, and Superintendent Wharton is nobody's fool - he is every bit as smart as Travers.
Mystery historian Curtis Evans has provided a long and detailed introduction, both to Bush’s life and writings in general and to this book in particular. In his discussion of Dancing Death, Evans writes, “It is at this point that dead bodies begin to turn up at Little Levington Hall, like so many unwanted Christmas presents. (Sadly, it is hard to regift a corpse.)” Well, yes – but, especially at this time of year, Dancing Death, by Christopher Bush, is a lovely present to the author’s fortunate readers, thanks to this latest venture from Dean Street Press.