Saturday, December 21, 2019

Reprint of the Year: The Case of the Second Chance

Last year, Kate at Cross Examining Crime came up with brilliant brainstorm. In the wake of various publishing houses recognizing the virtues of Golden Age (and more recent) vintage crime novels through reprint editions of both well-known and more obscure titles, Kate thought those of us who love those vintage mysteries would like the chance to feature the year's reprints and make a pitch for our favorites to be voted Reprint of the Year. We loved the idea so much that we're going to do it again.

So, this Saturday and last, I and my illustrious colleagues Steve, Brad, Moira, John, Puzzle Doctor, Rehka, and Kate will feature our picks of the 2019 reprint crop and make our best bid for reprint stardom. Now, I do have a confession to make upfront--I am (as many of my blog followers know) a challenge-aholic. That being the case, I made my choices blind--based purely on what books I had lurking on my TBR shelves that would work for challenges as well.

Last week I nominated one for all you Ellery Queen fans out there. But this week...well, this week is my personal choice for Reprint of the Year: Christopher Bush's The Case of the Second Chance (1946; reprinted by Dean Street Press, May 2019). This was the first time I had ever read a book by Bush and I wasn't disappointed with this, the thirtieth in the Ludovic Travers series. I found it to be an interesting introduction to Travers and Wharton. The mystery itself is well done, though it does drag just a bit in the middle while the investigation languishes and the plot uses a couple of well-worn tropes (well-worn even by 1946. These issues didn't dampen my enthusiasm, however. I found our protagonists to be so well-defined and their relationship to be so engaging that I enjoyed myself thoroughly. And--even though the plot devices have been used before, Bush works the trick expertly enough that I didn't mind. Quite good fun! 

Travers has had a semi-official position with the police and developed a relationship with Superintendent George Wharton after assisting with several investigations as a gifted amateur. The current story begins with Travers  on leave from the army when Wharton is called upon to investigate the murder of a well-known actor/producer Charles Manfrey. Manfrey is an unsurprising murder victim--Wharton and Travers soon find that the actor had ruffled feathers in a number of quarters. There is Henry Nevall, the actor who played Brutus to Manfrey's Cassius and whom Manfrey tried to upstage repeatedly. There is Victor Yarnell, a handsome young actor who has had great success in his current play and hopes of taking the part into the movies--but Manfrey has bought the rights with a stipulation that anyone but Yarnell be hired. There is Violet Lancing, the actor's secretary who longs to be on stage and has an eye for the main chance--and may have found the odds too heavily against her. And there is May Clarke, the housekeeper who seems to have a heart of gold but may have had enough of her employer's ill-temper.

The plot has an interesting construction. It is laid out in three parts. We begin with Manfrey's murder in his own library and follow the investigation and interviews only to end part one with Wharton and Travers as puzzled as when they began. There are plenty of suspects, but everyone seems to have rock-solid alibis. Wharton even asks Travers to break one of the alibis and he is unable to find a way to do so. So...the first part ends with an inquest verdict of "Murder by some person or persons unknown."

Travers returns to the war and then a year later is demobilized for health reasons. He returns to his specialized work at the Yard and it seems like the Manfrey murder will never be solved. In 1945 he completes a special assignment and--in preparation for starting up private inquiry business with the soon-to-be retired Wharton--goes to work for the Bond Street Detective Agency. One of the first cases to come along involves blackmail. Bill Ellice (current owner of the agency) agrees to meet the prospective client who has insisted on complete confidentiality but is wary enough of her story to ask Travers to sit in the next room where a conveniently thin door will allow him to hear all. He wants Travers to signal him (through an elaborate buzzing system from the secretary)whether he thinks it sounds fishy enough to decline the job. 

Despite the fact that he is certain the woman is lying all over the place, Travers gives the "go ahead" signal. Why? Because he's recognized the woman's voice as belonging to Violet Lancing. And he's darn curious what she's being blackmailed about. Could it have anything to do with that Manfrey case in her past? There are links...but the answer to both mysteries are going to be a bit more involved than just "Violet killed Manfrey and now X is blackmailing Violet." Travers, Wharton, and Ellice will each contribute to the solution.

I highly recommend this reprint and definitely plan to seek out more of the series myself.

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