Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Case of the Second Chance

The Case of the Second Chance (1946) by Christopher Bush is the thirtieth book in his Ludovic Travers novels and was recently reprinted in May 2019 by Dean Street Press. 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.

This was my first taste of Christopher Bush's work and I found it to be an interesting introduction to Travers and Wharton. The mystery itself is fairly 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! ★★★★

Spoiler! [highlight the apparently blank area if you're curious] I just realized that the cover of my edition (pictured)--as sparse as it is--manages to give away part of the solution.

[First Line] This is the story of a second chance, and second chances, as we're often told, are pretty rare things. I've already said, I like people. All sorts interest me, and always have. I like to know the whys and wherefores of things and what makes the wheels go round. (p. 40)

Motives don't matter at the moment. What does matter is that he's got a perfect alibi. Bust that alibi and then we can talk about motives. (Superintendent George Wharton; p. 52)

Curious how we don't give other people credit for having the same perspicacity in things we've come to regard as our own particular property. I thought George had been a long way from an accurate summing-up of Violet, and yet there he was, hitting my own nail shrewdly over the head. (p. 62)

George has never quite accepted the evolution of myself from the apprentice stage, but it does me no harm to listen and it gives him pleasure to talk. (p. 63)

Deaths = 3 (one hit with poker; one strangled; one shot)
Mystery Bingo = Item in Newspaper; Maid/Housekeeper; Gun; Bare Hands; Fireplace; Library

1 comment:

Christophe said...

Sounds appealing. Thanks for your review. I still have to try any of those books by Christopher Bush re-issued by DSP. It looks like this may be a good one.