Dancing Death by Christopher Bushpublished 1931
The fancy-dress ball was really Brenda Frewne’s idea. Old Henry Braishe had made it an annual affair for New Year’s Eve, and it did indeed seem rather a pity to drop an event to which so many of the most charming people in that corner of the county looked forward….
As for those people who accepted the invitation to that small house party, their motives too were decidedly mixed. If one were fantastically minded or had a liking for high-flown imagery, one might say that all sorts of roads, during those 24 hours, led to Little Levington – as for instance, The Street of Unlawful Delights, the Path of Prevarication, Hilarity Highway and The Road to Dusty Death…
[The guests are gathering]
‘What’s your costume Ludo?'
‘oh – er – Malvolio.’
‘What are you Franklin?’
‘An apache. Parisian burglar sort of bloke.’
Tommy frowned. ‘Wish I’d got the brains to think of things like that. Me, I’m going to be a jolly old harlequin. Had it for the Favershams’ dance last week.’
‘I say! Martin’ll be rather upset,’ said Travers. ‘He’s a harlequin.’
Tommy whistled. ‘Is he, by Jove! Then you fellers’d better keep quiet about it till I get it on. They can’t make me take the damn thing off.’
TO ALL READERS: HAVE A GREAT NEW YEAR’S EVE, EVEN IF YOU DON’T GET TO GO TO A COSTUME BALL…
So this book is much described as a ‘Christmas mystery’, but it is very clearly a New Year’s Eve Costume Ball mystery, and much the better for that. As ever, I am going to complain that we do not see enough of the actual fancy dress ball: we leap from preparations to a chapter called After The Ball Was Over. (I am forever saying, it’s surprising how many books advertise a fancy dress party – such a Clothes in Books favourite – but don’t actually give us scenes from it.)
However Bush is forgiven, because the house party are still lounging around in their the costumes half the night, and appearances are all-important.
And because there are TWO maps included – a plan of the bedroom arrangements, and a sketch showing the relative positions of the house, the former croquet lawn and the pagoda… Important because of course it has snowed and the footprints are very important.
So, as pretty much guaranteed by the maps, it is great fun as a murder story. It dips in the middle somewhat, you just want them to get on with it, but the murder explanation is satisfying and complex. He takes his characters seriously – I loved this description of a pair of sisters, a clergyman’s daughters:
Brenda seemed to have left the vicarial nest by crossing the lawn to the duke’s castle; Mirabel to have eloped from a back window with the frowsty leader of a pierrot troupe.It is just a shame that the murder victim is one of the most interesting characters, one who had seemed to promise more great dialogue, action and clothes…but who thus is cut off and disappears.
And talking of clothes – it is a given in the book that, as above, any fancy dress party would feature a good number of men dressed as harlequins. So much so that it is suggested that it is the ideal outfit for an intruder, gate-crasher, burglar: he would always be mistaken for a guest. This theory was taken to extremes in the Josephine Bell book Death in Clairvoyance, on the blog here. In that 1949 book, a hotel running a dance keeps a stock of harlequin costumes for the use of men who have forgotten to bring their own.
There’s been another Christopher Bush book on the blog here. And many, many posts featuring harlequins – click on label below, but this post is a particularly choice collection of books featuring harlequins, with some jaw-dropping pictures.
I first heard about Dancing Death over at Curt Evans’ Passing Tramp blog, and appropriately enough, Curt wrote the introduction to this reprint of the title – which came courtesy of those wonderful people at Dean Street Press. I’d been looking for the book since Curt’s post at Xmas 2014, but it seemed impossible to get hold of – and then, voila, DSP to the rescue.
The top picture is The Costume Ball by Max Freidrich Rabes from The Athenaeum.
The harlequin is a magazine cover, from the Library of Congress.