Bude, the pen name of Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901-57), juices this 1947 cozy by spending more than half the story setting the stage for a double murder whose victims are both active in a fantastical cult that’s taken root in the English village of Welworth.
The two powers behind the Children of Osiris, popularly known by the acronym Coo, are Eustace Mildmann, a widowed ex-bookseller whose fascination with early Egyptian religion launched Cooism, and Alicia Hagge-Smith, the wealthy widow whose capacious purse has installed Eustace as High Prophet and turned Cooism into a veritable cash machine. Despite their closeness, they don’t see eye to eye about everything. Eustace doesn’t share Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s infatuation with Peta Penpeti, whose assiduous devotion to the cult has made him Eustace’s successor-designate. And he’s slow to warm to his backer’s enthusiastic suggestion that they organize a conference that ends up drawing 600 of the faithful to Welworth, where they sleep in tents and talk a lot of rubbish Bude (The Lake District Murder, 2016, etc.) is too solicitous to let his readers overhear. Instead, he focuses on rivalries among the tight cliques that form around Penelope Parker, the Penpeti booster Eustace hopelessly adores; Hansford Boot, the Eustace booster who’s being blackmailed over some shameful secret in his past; and Denise Blake, Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s secretary, whom Eustace’s son, Terence, would love to marry despite his father’s sputtering objections. The nonfatal shooting of Sidney Arkwright, the under-chauffeur Mrs. Hagge-Smith has assigned Eustace, is only a prelude to a double poisoning that brings Inspector Meredith down from Scotland Yard to solve a case whose mysteries seem to multiply faster than rabbits.
Once Bude’s franchise hero arrives, the elaborately facetious but essentially toothless satire of the first half gives way to the head-scratching complications of the second. Pick your poison: although neither kind of pleasure is sustained all the way through, they’re both amply in evidence.