My first experience of John Bude was The Cheltenham Square Murder (one of the earliest reviews on this blog) and while I found some aspects of the investigation interesting, I felt that it suffered from having to sustain its far-fetched premise. I did like the characterization and I appreciated the mechanics of Meredith’s investigation.
Death Makes A Prophet plays to some of the strengths I observed in that novel but, because its structure is quite different it avoids a few of the pitfalls. In fact as the crime only takes place between pages 148 and 149 around half of the book is setting the scene, establishing character relationships and some of the points of interest that will flummox Meredith later on.
The story concerns a religious cult, the Children of Osiris, that was established by Eustace Mildmann. After a few years of moderate success, Eustace suddenly found his order swelling when it received the patronage of a wealthy and eccentric aristocrat, Mrs Hagge-Smith. He soon found though that with the money came interference and increasing demands on his time. A deputy Prophet-in-Waiting, Mr. Penpeti, has been appointed and is gaining increasing influence within the order to the disgust of some Eustace-supporters. The tensions are palpable and will soon increase due to some external influences on the group and as a consequence of some decisions the characters will make.
In this climate a murder seems inevitable and yet throughout much of the first half of the novel it is not entirely clear who the victim will be as there clearly are schemes and counter-schemes taking place. Even once the crime does take place, for reasons I won’t spoil, it is not entirely clear who may have been murdered or whether a body was in fact murdered at all. Inspector Meredith has a tough case on his hands, working to disentangle the leads through diligent, thorough detection.
With the murder taking place at the midpoint of the novel, the investigation is somewhat compressed but that does not mean that the case or solutions to the smaller questions that occur along the way are simpler. In fact this case features a few particularly clever questions and puzzles for the reader and detective to consider. My favorite of these concerns some glassware found in a room and was brilliantly simple and logical but there are some other excellent candidates to pick from.
In addition to the murder mystery, the novel is laced with satirical and observational humor and some wonderfully rich characterization. Mixing comedy and murder is always risky business as personal tastes vary so much on the question of what is funny and jokes can sometimes undermine the development of a good mystery. Happily here that is not the case as the humor is in sympathy with rather than working against the development of the plot.
Much of the humor is derived from its character studies. Some, such as Mrs. Hagge-Smith, enjoy flexing their influence and using their money and power to remake the group in their image. Others, such as Eustace’s son, have been dragged into membership of the cult and take pleasure in secretly disobeying some of its tenets. These characters are well observed and will be recognizable to most readers as types, regardless of whether they have spent much time around small religious groups.
The only character who I felt was not particularly successful was Miss Minnybell, a character who we learn is instantly suspicious of Mr. Penpeti because she believe him to be the same Turkish servant who assaulted her in her youth. While she is quite a minor figure, the few appearances she does make seem to do little to advance the mystery. At the same time, she is not in the book often enough to be credible as a suspect in its second half.
This is a rare misstep though and it does at least help to flesh out the organization a little, creating a sense of life beyond the small circle of characters who will fall under suspicion. Other characters are richer, possessing secrets and while I quickly settled on the guilty party, I felt that there were some original ideas both in how the crime was committed and the circumstances that made for compelling reading even once you have worked out the solution.
I never lost interest and devoured this book in a single session. There are some very clever and entertaining ideas at play here and while not perfect, I found this to be a very satisfying read. Like Puzzle Doctor, I felt that this is manages to be funny and mysterious at the same time and I would also highly recommend it as another highlight in the British Library Crime Classics range.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Pseudonymous Author (What)