Once off the quayside Bill realised the the small hours of a bitter February morning was not the ideal time to weave one's way out of Dunkirk. Presumably there had been roads between the rubble heaps and undoubtedly, before the holocaust, they'd led somewhere. But now there was nothing but a maze of treacherous, pot-holed tracks meandering aimlessly between a network of railway-lines and flattened buildings.
How's that for a bit of priceless period detail? Unless you're a fan of the British Library Crime Classics series, you probably haven't heard of John Bude, one of those erstwhile popular writers who dropped off the radar after his death in 1957. The BL published a couple of his early novels back in 2014, and I reviewed them enthusiastically for issue 1 of Shiny New Books (you can read that review here). Those two were set in arguably the most attractive parts of England, Cornwall and the Lake District, but this latest offering, published in 1952, moves the setting to the south of France.
Readers of The Lake District Murder will remember Detective-Inspector Meredith, who is still going strong eighteen years later. He's acquired a young sidekick, Freddy Strang, and as the novel begins we find them getting off the cross-channel ferry and setting off for Menton, on the French-Italian border. The two of them have been dispatched on the track of a well-known forger, Chalky Cobett, who's been flooding the market with counterfeit notes and is apparently now functioning on the French Riviera.
Menton is a highly attractive town, and the pair soon start enjoying delicious food and classy wine, not to mention the balmy temperatures (a bit of wishful thinking on Bude's part, this, as the book takes place in February, when Menton won't be all that much hotter than the UK, but never mind that). They soon fall in with the residents of the stylish Villa Paloma. This is owned by a wealthy widow, Nessie Hedderwick, who delights in filling her house with attractive and unusual guests. Needless to say, most of them prove to have secrets, and one of them soon becomes a suspect in Meredith's forgery investigation. To complicate matters, young Freddy falls head over heels in love with Nessie's pretty young niece Dilys, which rather takes his mind off police business.
For a novel called Death on the Riviera, this is unusually slow in living up to its title. Somebody mysteriously disappears around page 154, his bloodstained car is found on page 157, but there's not going to be any sign of a corpse for some time yet. Mind you, once a body turns up at the bottom of a ravine, having gone over the edge of the dangerous corniche coastal road, things start to hot up considerably, and the final pages of the novel are full of as many twists and turns as anyone could wish for. The solution to the crime is extraordinarily ingenious, perhaps rather unbelievably so, but there's so much fun to be had along the way that I didn't care.
I got a huge amount of pleasure from this novel, a good chunk of it due to the wonderful period detail. As a child I actually visited the area around Menton on my first ever holiday in France, so this was doubly evocative for me. Bude evidently adored France, and his love for the place is evident on every page. Add to that the presence of the delightful Inspector, his attractive young assistant, and the cast of somewhat bizarre characters, both French and expat, and you have a recipe for the most delightful escapism, which must have been very welcome to readers in grey, dreary post-war Britain. If you'd like a second opinion, get over to the most recent Shiny New Books, where Hayley Anderton has written a review. Great stuff.