For me, a mystery isn’t just about the story. It’s also the time and the place in which you’ve experienced it. There are so many books that I’ve read where I simply can’t divorce where and when I read them from the actual plot. The Burning Court – a mountain lodge in Crested Butte, Colorado. The Plague Court Murders – a dingy “extended stay” motel in San Jose, California. Nine Times Nine – a sleepless night in Winchester, UK. The list goes on and on, even if it’s merely on the couch in my home on a foggy night.
There’s a nagging desire in my mind to mix the mood of my surrounding with the book I’m reading. Not from a desire to further experience the book, but to instead amplify the seasons that I enjoy in life. And if there’s any given time of year I look forward to, it’s the fall and the early winter. Last year I felt like I captured that season perfectly with John Dickson Carr’s Poison in Jest. I don’t know that I’d characterize that Pennsylvanian gothic tale as being particularly wintery, but reading it in late November sure hit the spot. As the season rolled around this year, I’ve been keeping my eye out for some appropriate reads. And so, in classic cheesy blog tradition, I present you with a Christmas murder mystery.
Well, it’s not that I’m trying to do a Christmas story in particular. It’s just that I’m surrounded by multiple feet of snow and sub-30 temperatures (Fahrenheit for those of you who think I’m basking on the beach), and I want something that captures that feeling. Not just the cold, but that odd still silence that you get when you walk outside on a perfect winter night and you find yourself imagining a mystery.
Christopher Bush has been on my radar since the Dean Street Press reissues in 2017. That was the year when his name was on everyone’s lips who’s tuned into this corner of the GAD world. Cut Throat, The Case of the April Fools, The Case of the Bonfire Body – blogs were abuzz with these titles a year ago. I was beside myself, filling my Christmas wishlist with blind hope for a successor to John Dickson Carr.
You see, Christopher Bush published over 60 mysteries, potentially pushing him well into Christie/Carr territory. That these books were a staple of the Golden Age, only to fall out of print due publishing considerations, seemed like a dream come true. My larders were well stocked with Bush last winter, but I have to admit I became a bit gun shy after a few respected reviewers asked “what’s the big deal?”
And so here I am, a year later, stepping into Bush not with my original target (Cut Throat) but instead Dancing Death, because a snow bound mystery feels just right.
To start things off, this isn’t actually “a Christmas mystery” – in spite of what the cover to my edition states. The story instead unfolds following a New Years Eve party. A group of costumed revelers have gathered at the home of Martin Braishe to ring in the new year. The morning finds the house robbed, the power and phone lines cut, and the occupants recovering from being drugged. Worse off, there’s a woman stabbed to death in a bedroom and a ghastly corpse in a nearby pagoda – cause of death undetermined.
There are enough people who spent the night in the mansion that we have a large field of suspects – and we do know that the killer is among them. You see, the area was hit by a massive snowstorm the night before and there are no tracks coming or going. Fortunately, two of the house guests are actually detectives – amateur Ludovic Travers and professional John Franklin.
It’s hard for me to proceed without diving into a core issue that I had with the book – I couldn’t keep the characters straight. We have maybe ten core houseguests (maybe, I honestly don’t know). There are also a handful of characters who attended the New Years Eve party but left before the snow got too deep. Then you have innumerable footmen, maids, and the like milling around the house.
I pretty sure that Bush introduced about half of these characters – hell, maybe he introduced them all at some point. The issue is that once a character has entered into a scene, they dissolve into just a name. Sure, maybe Bush originally mentioned that they were tall, pudgy, old, or young, but none of these traits will ever be mentioned again for the rest of the novel. Fifty pages in and I only really knew who four of the characters were with certainty.
On top of that, the characters are referenced both by their first names and last names with no cueing in the text to hint that the same person is being referred to – it took me forever to realize that “Martin” and “Braishe” were the same character. This problem is amplified in that nearly every male character has an eight letter name that starts with a ‘P’. I couldn’t keep track of whether I was reading a conversation with a doctor, butler, uncle, cousin, or what have you. There were times I couldn’t even tell you what gender particular characters were.
It wasn’t until around the halfway point that my mind had finally reduced what seemed to be thirty different names down to a key set of characters. Understandably, that threw my enjoyment of the mystery off a bit. I had absolutely no clue which characters were where when various key scenes had played out early in the novel. That’s somewhat problematic because this is one of those mysteries that hinges on alibis and who had opportunity to be where at which moment.
As such, I somewhat just leaned back and decided to enjoy the ride. For the most part, Dancing Death is what I’d call an unremarkable mystery. There’s plenty of odd little mysteries sprinkled here and there – why was a victim surrounded by shredded balloons? Why was a man seen struggling through a snowdrift when a perfectly clear path was mere yards away? What happened to that vial of poisoned gas that was stolen from a safe? And yet, these aren’t exactly questions that gnaw at your mind, nor are the respective answers really that interesting.
The plot spins its wheels on a number of these questions for about 200 pages, with just enough minor riddles solved at a pace to keep you interested. My favorite element involved a story with a story – reminiscent of passages in books like The Plague Court Murders or The Devil Drives. In this case, we’re presented with an unfinished novel that one of the victims was writing at the time he died. Travers provides a synopsis of the plot and then challenges each of the suspects to write a suitable ending for the book. This was the part of the story that I felt had the most promise, although it ultimately doesn’t end up with much of interest – a great potential wasted.
An interesting element of Dancing Death was that it wasn’t really clear who was ultimately going to solve the mystery. We start the story with series sleuth Ludovic Travers on the case with his inspector friend John Franklin. They’re eventually joined by Superintendent Wharton (I believe another series character) who brings a completely different style to the case. This was slightly reminiscent of Poison in Jest in that one of the big questions in my mind was which sleuth would emerge victorious.
Although there were these interesting elements, the book did drag a bit. It seemed like the type of novel that would be best enjoyed by someone who wants to keep thorough notes in an attempt to outwit the author. Not really my style.
Things pick up significantly towards the end and concluded with a satisfying denouement. Bush had created a tangle of minor mysteries and I was surprised that he was able to provide a simple path through it all. There isn’t anything brilliant, but there are several nice turns of the plot that leave you seeing things in a new light. In fact, after reading the book, there are a few obvious passages to go back and re-read and I got a bit of sly satisfaction out of that.
Without a doubt I’ll return to Bush (I have three other titles sitting on the shelf), but I admit that I’ll be in no great rush. That’s fine – I got my snowbound mystery for the season.