War has broken out with Germany and Ludovic Travers, who served during the Great War, is determined to do his part. Too old for active service, he finds himself given the rank of Captain and assigned to No. 54 Prisoner of War camp at Shoreleigh as Adjutant Quartermaster, a similar post that he had in Egypt in the first conflict. But things are quite different here.
Housed in a monstrous Victorian ex-hospital, the camp is not a happy place – not just because of the ongoing conflict, but the commanding officer, Major Stirrop is an unpleasant and unpredictable leader. As tensions rise, and the first German prisoners of war arrive, Travers has his hands full keeping the camp running smoothly in the face of Stirrop’s antagonistic approach and general incompetence. But when Stirrop is found dead, lying in the snow with no footprints around him, it falls to Travers to keep the camp running and find a murderer… or does it?
This is the first of the trilogy of wartime mysteries written by Bush (also the cases of The Kidnapped Colonel and The Fighting Soldier) that draws extensively on the author’s military experiences and it clearly shows, with the setting full of detail concerning the running of the camp and the issues faced therein – did you know that yellow paint was used to detect gas? I wonder – did this sort of book have to be screened before publication in case there was too much information?
Anyway, this is another book that I’m looking at for my series of reviews Do Mention The War, namely books both set and written during the height of the conflict. Bush served in the same post that Travers adopts in this tale, but in August 1940 was granted indefinite release for health grounds, meaning that he could use his experiences when he returned to writing, clearly using his freshest experiences first.
He takes his time setting the scene here, as he spends the first four or five months of the conflict building up the conflicts within the camp, with a spy in the prisoners of war, a possible escape opportunity, a mysteriously appearing and disappearing prisoner… before the inevitable happens and the Major is murdered. And then something rather odd happens – Travers doesn’t dive headlong into crime solving.
Possibly in a reflection of Bush’s attitude towards the war, Travers’ priority remains the running of the camp and while he does do some investigating once promoted to running the camp, the majority is in order to maintain the smooth running of the camp, identifying the potential problem inmates, for example, or trying to ascertain the identity of the extra prisoner. Instead, it is Superintendent George Wharton who puts on one of his finest investigative shows to sort out the myriad problems of the case. While the narrative focuses on Travers – the tale is told by an unnamed fly-on-the-wall – Wharton busies himself in the background, making a point of not revealing much to Travers about how the investigation is going, perhaps in recognition of Travers’ new status, not trusting Captain Travers to be able or willing to keep secrets from his superior officers?
This is an outstanding book, both as a classic mystery and as a picture of wartime from an insider, and it’ll keep the reader utterly absorbed until the final page. Many thanks to Dean Street Press yet again for the review copy – their recent reissue also contains a foreword by crime historian Curtis Evans that adds a lot of detail about Bush’s experiences leading up to this book. Do I need to say that this is Highly Recommended? Why not? This is Highly Recommended – one of those books that makes it really difficult to understand why an author such as Bush was forgotten about for so long…