Death on the Riviera – John Bude (1952)

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Detective-Inspector Meredith and Sergeant Strang are heading to the French Riviera to assist in breaking up a currency counterfeiting ring, and bring at least one of its members back to England with them. Along with their French colleagues Blampignon and Gibaud, they quickly pick up a trail that leads to the Villa Paloma, where rich widow Nesta Hedderwick lives with her niece Dilys, her companion Miss Pillgrew, the gigolo-esque Tony, his friend Kitty, and the artist Paul Latour. They’re soon joined by Bill Dillon, a fellow-traveler the policemen bumped into earlier, who has an agenda of his own. Tensions rise in the Villa, and meanwhile the police methodically track down the counterfeiters – but before they can swoop in for the arrests, they end up with a body on their hands.

The book reaches the Riviera quickly – after a brief atmospheric journey through the war-scarred Dunkirk landscape that I thought was the best part of the book. In addition to the evocative landscape and interesting (though blatantly expository) details about cross-channel travel at the time, this section raises a fair few intriguing questions, some of which will be answered quickly and some which won’t. I almost wonder if this section was written afterwards to add context to the rest of the book.
Anyway, as explained in this section, the policemen are in France hunting for the forger “Chalky” Cobbet. If you’re expecting from the title that a body turns up to complicate the investigation, well, it does, just 2/3 of the way through the book, after the counterfeiting investigation is pretty much wrapped up. I felt the book would have benefitted from these two threads being wound together from the start. The counterfeiting investigation is not boring exactly, but while there are a few twists, for the most part it’s fairly linear. The fraudsters have a few inventive tricks up their sleeve that are fun to watch get figured out, but for these sections it doesn’t really feel like us readers get to play along in the guessing game.

That does change when the titular Death on the Riviera actually happens, and the enjoyment I got from guessing really demonstrated for me how much fun I’d have if I could guess in the first part. It’s all too brief, though; it quickly became obvious whodunnit, and evolved into more of a howdunnit. Bude is not really delivering a fair-play puzzle plot here; he’s a great fan of hiding the really telling clues so that the detective can deliver a “surprise”. Despite being a police detective, Meredith actually has a bad habit of keeping the solutions from his colleagues, too – they all have a tendency of forcing each other to work everything out for themselves. Not the only instance of unprofessional conduct, either – in fact, I’d say the lax nature of their policing actually allows the murder to happen.
Of course, by the strict and rather odd moral framework of the story, the victim probably deserved it anyway. This moral framework was something I found rather annoying. The detective frequently makes snap judgements of who and what to trust, based on people being upstanding characters and The Right Sort, etc etc. My cynical, Christie-loving soul was disappointed to find these judgements were never questioned, never turned out to be wrong at any point.

That’s not to say that every character is simplistic. In fact a central part of the story is the complicated relationship between several people, where it seems there really is no good solution to their problems. I don’t think the story pays this off very well – far more could be made of this important tangle.
The book also features a romance between Sergeant Strang and one of the… well, she should be a suspect, but she’s not – one of the residents of the villa that is the nexus for all the plotlines. These lovers were pretty charming, even bouncing investigative ideas off each other at some points. Bude is far more invested in this wholesome and uncomplicated relationship than any other character. The meet-cute for this is quite witty, which the writing does manage to be at times, particularly towards the start of the book.

Overall, it’s an entertaining enough read which aims to give you a pleasant time and a broadly-painted view of the picturesque Riviera. It has some ingenious ideas but is not really concerned with the puzzle. I found the events of the book began to fade from memory not long after finishing. I’m sure some readers will have a lovely time with this, but there’s nothing here that makes me want to check out any more John Bude.

Other opinions:

Golden Age of Detective Fiction
In Search of the Classic Mystery

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