By the second paragraph of Death Makes a Prophet I had turned back to check the copyright date just to make sure it was really published in 1947 England and not 2017 Portlandia. It made me laugh out loud recognizing our local prototype in this description, “A very high percentage of the Welworth élite are not only vegetarians, but non-smokers, non-drinkers and non-pretty-well-everything-that-makes-life-worth-living for less high-minded citizens. They weave their own cloth, knit their own jumpers and go their own ways with that recherché look common to all who have espoused the Higher Life. Many favour shorts and open-work sandals.” If only they had Birkenstocks. Of course, Portlanders are drinkers, but if microbrews had been the thing in 1947, perhaps the Welworthies would have been drinkers, too.
This sets the tone for much of the book, a bit of gentle mocking humor from the narrator’s point of view, healthily skeptical of the Children of Osiris religious sect, the religion of Cooism…and that word alone should clue you into how this book will have great fun poking at the credulous cultists of COO.
Of course, it’s a murder mystery, but the first half of the book sets the stage, introduces the characters, their conflicts and conspiracies. It’s pretty clear someone is going to be murdered, but exactly who is still up for grabs until, surprisingly, two are killed in an apparent murder-suicide. And so, it’s not until we’re halfway through that the unflappable Inspector Meredith shows up to solve the case by interviewing people and taking long walks to think.
I have mixed feelings about Death Makes a Prophet though overall it is an enjoyable enough procedural. It is fair, even though at the end, Meredith gets some test results on evidence and has an interview and a report from France that all we get to see are Meredith’s “aha’s”, nods, and smiles. Usually, that kind of thing irritates me, but enough other clues are provided that while we while the specific information is absent, we know the kind of information he was seeking. It really is a clever plot that murderer came up with and very nearly successful.
I enjoyed the humor, even though, or maybe because, it was a bit contemptuous of those seeking a different road to meaning. However, it really showed its age when the narrator, not a character, used an expression that is long out of favor because it uses a racist epithet to express an unexpected turn of events in a woodpile. This presents a dilemma, I think, for publishers who reprint long out-of-print books like this. After all, John Bude was a nice, agreeable, kind man. If he were writing today, he would never use that expression and would say something like “fly in the ointment” or “had he but known” or some other way of expressing an unexpected turn.
The use of the epithet in the narrative, so not essential to denote any character’s racism so it’s not like Mark Twain’s use. I think it should be edited to a less offensive term because I think Bude himself would edit it if he were alive to do it. After all, why should some African American reader who picks up this book get slammed in the face with the insult? It’s different if there is an expectation created by the subject matter, the characters, the setting, but this book has nothing to signal that they will spring this word on readers. I have seen a friend break down in tears when assaulted by this word, so why keep it in a book when it has no story purpose? In 1947, people spoke and wrote differently than they do now, but some of those old expressions do not need to be retained. It is not more authentically 1947 and editing is part of a publisher’s job.
I don’t want to make too much of this. It didn’t “ruin” the book for me, though it dampened my pleasure in it. It is a dilemma and I can understand the idea of reprinting exactly as it was written will have its defenders, but I think we should ask ourselves what this man who has been lauded as a kindly and lovely man would do if he were editing it today.
I received an e-galley of Death Makes a Prophet from the publisher through Poisoned Pen Press.