Review published on July 12, 2017.
Welworth Garden City is a thoroughly modern metropolis (to 1950s eyes at least) inhabited by folk with thoroughly modern ideas and sensibilities. Indeed, a high percentage of the Welworth elite are “not only vegetarians, but non-smokers, non-drinkers and non-pretty-well-everything-that-makes-life-worth-living for less high-minded citizens.” Paradoxically, the city is also a haven (heaven?) for all manner of religious orders, from Theosophy to Babaism, Seventh Day Adventism to Christian Science, and Pantheism to whatever spiritual ideal you care to name.
However, perhaps the most successful, and certainly the most sincere, sect to take root in Welworth Garden City is the Children of Osiris, whose doctrine is more popularly known as the Cult of Coo or, more simply, Cooism. A happy mixture of “belief in magic numbers, astrology, auras, astral bodies, humility, meditation, vegetarianism, immortality, hand-woven tweeds and brotherly love”, Cooism was the brainchild of one Eustace Mildmann, a man who left behind a career in bookselling (the fool!) to commune with his five female acolytes.
Mildmann’s congregation soon grew to number in the thousands, not least due to the influence of the Hon. Alicia Hagge-Smith, an early convert with the money, enthusiasm and brassneckedness necessary to help a fledgling religion grow. Yet, for all their supposed enlightenment, not all is happy within the Cult of Coo. While Eustace Mildmann remains ostensibly the High Prophet, he has to face the increasing popularity of the Prophet-in-Waiting, the flamboyant personage (he wears a fez!) that is Peta Penpeti. The Cult of Coo seems to have morphed into a hotbed of jealousy, intrigue and romantic entanglements, and it’s soon going to form the backdrop to one of Inspector Meredith’s most puzzling cases.
Death Makes a Prophet is the sixth book by John Bude to be included in the British Library Crime Classics series (the others being The Cheltenham Square Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder, The Lake District Murder, The Cornish Coast Murder and Death on the Riviera) and, while it does eventually entail quite a complex conundrum for Bude’s regular detective, Inspector Meredith, it is intended to be far more humorous (the fez!) than his other mystery novels. It’s all rather farcical from the get-go, what with the religion, the maverick populace, the vegetarianism and the headgear, so it’s necessary to bear with the story for a while before it really gets going. In fact, the murder mystery element of the story, and with it the arrival of Inspector Meredith, doesn’t really kick off until more than half way through the book, although it is preceded by a couple of strange events that serve to keep crime buffs’ interest engaged.
When murder does eventually strike in the heart of Welworth Garden City, it presents a perplexing problem for the police, not so much due to the identity of the victim, nor because of the character of the most likely suspect, but rather because the whole thing seems to be impossible. In keeping with the established peculiarity of all the central characters and the various unlikely escapades that they have engaged in during the first half of the book, the motive behind the murder as well as its eventual execution are obscured by a surprising number of schemes, counter schemes and clandestine meetings. It’s here that John Bude’s excellent plotting comes into its own, since Inspector Meredith is tasked with the difficult business of breaking a seemingly impenetrable alibi. There’s some action involved in cracking the case, but Meredith’s real skill lies in fathoming the unfathomable (most often over a pie and a pint) and proving just how the murder could have actually been committed.
Due to its extremely (occasionally painfully) humorous tone, Death Makes a Prophet is likely to polarise the opinions of crime fiction fans. However, when considering the book as a whole, Bude manages to counterbalance the farcical elements of the story with the mysterious aspects of life in Welworth, so that those who persevere with the book are rewarded with a surprising murder and an intricately plotted solution. Many of the characters are rather over the top, but it’s actually quite charming (Vegetarianism! How droll!) in a Midsomer Murders kind of fashion. While the question of whodunit is not that difficult to solve, the howdunit element of Death Makes a Prophet is far more intriguing, and it’s also a really fun read.
Erin Britton 4/4
Death Makes a Prophet by John Bude
British Library Publishing 9780712356916 pbk Jul 2017
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