Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Ernest Elmore, who wrote as John Bude, may not be as well-known as some other Golden Age writers. But he was prolific (he wrote thirty crime novels). And his novels are arguably clear examples of some of the traditions that we most often associate with the Golden Age. It’s about time I included one of his books on this feature, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Cornish Coast Murder.
One evening, the Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, is having dinner with his old friend, Dr. Pendrill. Their pleasant evening is interrupted when Pendrill is summoned to Greylings, the home of the Tregarthan family. Julius Tregarthan has been shot, and by the time Pendrill and Dodd get there, he’s dead.
Inspector Bigswell and his team arrive, and it doesn’t take long to establish that Tregarthan’s death was neither an accident nor a suicide. So the police begin to investigate this case as a murder.
The facts that the police have are these. Tregarthan was shot through the open window of his sitting room. Three shots, from different angles, were fired, but two went wide. What’s more, it’s discovered that some money is missing from his wallet.
Although Tregarthan wasn’t the stereotypical nasty patriarch whom everyone hated, Bigswell and his team find that more than one person might have wanted him dead. First, there’s his niece Ruth Tregarthan, who lives with him. She’s in love with novelist Ronald Hardy, and her uncle strongly disapproved of the match. And of course there’s Hardy himself, who is much in love with Ruth as she is with him. Tregarthan had violent quarrels with both young people on the day he was shot, too.
There are also Mrs. Cowper, the housekeeper, and her husband, who is a sort of man-of-all-work around the place. They might very easily have their own reasons for wanting their employer dead, and without giving away spoilers, there is evidence that suggests that one or the other of them could have shot him. As the police continue their investigation, they also find out about one or two residents of the nearby town of Greystoke, who might very well have wanted Tregarthan dead.
In the meantime, Dodd is taking an interest of his own in the case. He’s a fan of detective fiction, and the opportunity to try to solve a real case is irresistible. He also has a personal interest; he’s very fond of Ruth and he doesn’t think Hardy is a murderer. So it’s important to him to clear their names if he can.
Bigswell soon learns that Dodd is both intelligent and wise. What’s more, Dodd knows the locals and they trust him. So he’s happy enough to get Dodd’s insights. Bigswell and Dodd, each in a slightly different way, follow up the clues and leads and together, they find out the truth about the murder.
This is, as I say, a Golden Age mystery. So it includes a lot of elements of the traditional Golden Age story. There is, for instance, a real focus on the ‘whodunit’ aspect of the story. There are also puzzling clues (e.g. Why where there three shots fired, and why at different angles?) that invite the reader to match wits against the author. The police and the vicar find clues, follow leads, check alibis and so on. And it is those clues that yield the solution. In fact, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s a scene where a ball of string turns out to be very helpful in putting together one piece of the puzzle.
There are also several characters that you often find in Golden Age mysteries. There are the young lovers (Are they wrongly suspected? Did they conspire with each other? Would either lie to protect the other?). There’s also the household staff and the locals, who have their own histories and a few secrets. And there are the village doctor and of course, the vicar.
The setting for the story is also traditionally Golden-Age. It’s a large old house that overlooks the sea. My edition of the novel doesn’t have maps or diagrams, but the layout of the house is very much what we often see in this sort of story. It’s complete with a butler’s pantry, sitting room, large dining room and so on.
The solution to the mystery, and its motive, are logical in the sense that the reader can imagine why the killer would have wanted to murder Tregarthan. And you can’t really say that the reader doesn’t have access to vital clues, so on that level, Bude ‘plays fair.’ That said though, readers will notice that the solution isn’t at all obvious. It’s hard to say more without giving away spoilers.
The story is in some senses very sad. The reason for the murder, for instance, is an unhappy one. And everything is not all right again by the end of the novel. However, you can’t call this a bleak story. There is a sense that life will go on and that people will put their lives back together. And yet, everyone is touched by the tragedy. In fact, here’s what the vicar says of it:
‘I seem to have lost my zest for a good mystery. It’s strange how contact with reality kills one’s appreciation of the imaginary. No…I’ll never get back my enthusiasm for thrillers.’
This isn’t one of those ‘jolly romp’ Golden Age stories.
Oh, and one more important point is in order. I was fortunate enough to get the British Library Crime Classics edition of this novel, which includes an interesting and well-written Introduction by crime writer and crime fiction expert Martin Edwards. If you read this edition too, don’t skip over the Introduction!
The Cornish Coast Murder is a story that invites the reader to match wits with the author. It takes place against a distinctive Cornish background and setting, and features two sleuths who each lend a different kind of expertise to solving the mystery. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cornish Coast Murder? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 16 February/Tuesday 17 February – China Trade – S.J. Rozan
Monday 23 February/Tuesday 25 February – A Nice Quiet Holiday – Aditya Sudarshan
Monday 3 March/Tuesday 4 March – The Divided Child – Ekaterine Nikas