The Lake District Murder is a classic procedural mystery from Golden Age mystery writer John Bude. A gas station owner is found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning, an apparent suicide. However, keen-eyed Inspector Meredith notes a few odd discrepancies, enough to request an autopsy that reveals the man was drugged and the suicide was a ruse to cover up a murder.
The investigation reveals no obvious motive and the only person who would make a good suspect has a solid alibi. However, the dead man left far too much money behind, so clearly something was up, but was it blackmail or some larger scheme or conspiracy?
With dogged persistence, Meredith keeps investigating, finding small loose threads that he relentlessly tugs to unravel this complex mystery.
Published in 1935, The Lake District Murder was Bude’s second book and featured Inspector Meredith who would be the primary detective in most of his mysteries for the rest of his career. The Lake District Murder has an old-fashioned feel to it, with its emphasis on the mechanics of the crime and disregard for character development. The criminals are not developed characters, most of the investigation occurs without their knowledge that they are even suspects. We know their movements down to the minute, but we know nothing else about them.
The police, including Inspector Meredith, are equally ciphers. They do their job with professionalism. There are no personalities, no sergeant who likes to tipple and no leering louche detectives. They do their jobs, report their findings and discuss the assembled clues, poking and prodding, looking for flaws, for suggestions for more investigation. This is investigation as ratiocination.
The Lake District Murder is as fair as a mystery novel can be. Every clue is known to us, we are privy to the deductive reasoning and even the inferences that Inspector Meredith and his superiors employ. Nothing is hidden which gives the story a plodding feel from time to time, though you could call it verisimilitude to the actual process of investigation which can be tedious and painstaking. There is overwhelming detail, for example, of the process of investigating shipments and deliveries. Perhaps because readers in 1935 had not seen several hundred hours of television dramas, every single step of the operation was explained.
There are interesting artifacts of the past in the story. When a list of names and addresses needs to transmitted from one location to another, the superintendent and inspector pass their phones to subordinates who are tasked with the tedium, the 1935 version of sending a fax. Meredith is clever at figuring out ways to collect evidence, even creating a sieve to quite literally catch evidence as it’s being disposed of.
The mystery is complex and while there is a bit of whodunnit, The Lake District Murder is much more about the how and why and even more difficult, how to prove it. As a modern mystery reader, I missed the elements of character development that draw us in. Most of the characters could be named x, y, and z for how much we get to know them. Meredith is equally flat. The liveliest character is his wife who has enough personality to discourage their son from pursuing the police as a career. Instead, the characters are their roles and not much more. I did not dislike the mystery, not at all, but I would like it more if it dialed up the character development just a bit and dialed down the specificity of who is going to be watching whom for how long when.
While he was not a member of the famed Detection Club with the greats like Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Agatha Christie, he was a co-founder of the more egalitarian Crime Writers Association.
The Lake District Murder will be released on December 6th. I was provided an e-galley by NetGalley.