Religious cults appear to be excellent sources of material for mysteries. Perhaps it's the sheer outlandishness of a cult, or the freedom it gives an author to create a distinctive and odd group from scratch. Whatever the reason, it's a plot point that has certainly been embraced by a number of popular mystery authors, including some of the very good writers of the Golden Age in both the U. S. and in England. Ellery Queen created and wrote about cults. So did Ngaio Marsh (a couple of times, in fact). On the Classic Mysteries podcast today, we'll be discussing John Bude's 1947 contribution to this sub-genre: Death Makes a Prophet. You can listen to the complete audio review by clicking here.
Death Makes a Prophet - and, yes, the pun is quite intentional - takes place in the English town of Welworth Garden City, home to a variety of free-thinkers and religious cults. One of the better-established cults is a group calling itself the Children of Osiris, or C-O-O, or simply "Cooism." the group is headed by its High Prophet, a former bookseller named Eustace K. Mildmann. He appears to be the principal source of the group's beliefs, which are described this way by the author:
[A] hot-pot compounded of a belief in magic numbers, astrology, auras, astral bodies, humility, medication, vegetarianism, immortality, hand-woven tweeds and brotherly love. It was, in short an obliging religion because one could find in it pretty well anything one looked for.
The cult appeared to have been created more or less out of whole cloth from Mildmann's ramblings. As the cult flourished, however, it also began to have problems – petty jealousies, frictions and resentments that began as minor ones but soon grew. There were squabbles about everything – including a battle over who should succeed Mildmann as High Prophet. Eventually, the situation would explode into murder and present some very difficult problems for Bude's series detective, Scotland Yard Inspector Meredith. Through it all, Bude manages to maintain a pleasantly sharp satirical tone while juggling what would prove to be a very complex plot.
Long out of print, John Bude's books appear to be making a comeback, reaching new audiences through the re-release of books such as Death Makes a Prophet as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press (which made a copy available to me for this review). It's being released officially in the U.S. next week, right after New Year's Day. As mystery historian Martin Edwards points out in his introduction to this new edition, it is a most likeable book.