After a longer pause than I previously intended, today I am returning to my chronological survey through the mysteries of Cecil Freeman Gregg (1898-1960), author of over 40 books featuring Inspector Cuthbert Higgins of Scotland Yard. Reviews of the first two mysteries in the series, The Murdered Manservant and The Three Daggers, are already available on the blog and next comes number three, The Murder On The Bus.
Arriving at work one morning, the dapper Higgins, who we are told could be mistaken for a city gent, is greeted by a handwritten note forwarded by the Dead Letter Office and signed by a known criminal named Henry Hamper. This informs Scotland Yard that he has committed suicide by gas and directs them to his abode, warning them to take care when arriving in case of explosion. Higgins, not convinced of the authenticity of the letter but obliged to investigate, dispatches new recruit Constable Summers, along with series regular Dr Pape to give any medical assistance required. Despite Higgins’ dubiousness at the validity of the letter, they find a man gassed to death in the flat, his head enveloped in a pillow case with a tube running into it from the gas supply. The landlady identifies the body as a man who had taken the room three weeks earlier and fingerprints from the corpse match those in Scotland Yard’s register. Hamper’s son Thomas also identifies the body and the coroner finds Hamper had killed himself whilst temporarily insane, thus apparently bringing the episode to a close.
A few days later, Higgins is summoned late at night to investigate when the body of a murdered man is discovered on the top deck of a bus on it reaching the local garage. The dead man, he discovers, has been shot through the neck from behind whilst seated at the back of the open-deck bus. The man carries no identification and his clothes have had all their labels removed, making identification difficult, but £100 in old treasury notes is found stuffed into his pocket.
Theorising that the victim had been shot from a building somewhere along the route, Higgins investigates an empty house which has been condemned but shows signs of having been entered. There he discovers Thomas Hamper locked in the attic, who declares he was attacked after following a man to the house that he claims drove his father to suicide. However, before he can be compelled to reveal more he gives the police the slip and disappears. But Higgins’ difficulties do not end there, as he afterwards receives a visit from the gas company informing him that on emptying the meter in Hamper’s flat only a single penny was discovered – certainly not enough to have supplied sufficient gas to kill a man.
Next comes a lead from a village Constable who identifies a picture of the dead man found on the bus as someone who had been one of the occupants of a local house. Higgins heads there, only to encounter another known criminal and Thomas Hamper again lurking nearby, then to be locked up, shot at, being forced to climb up a narrow chimney to escape the house which is now on fire, followed by scrambling across an icy roof, climbing down a drainpipe and then engaging in a car chase which ends with him wrecking the vehicle but walking away unscathed – all within thirty pages and with half the book still to come. To which Higgins with his habitual insouciance declares ‘Born Lucky’.
This section of the book with its elements of sensational thriller and Sexton Blake-like action marks a departure from Gregg’s two previous mysteries. Other aspects are however more familiar, including crooks who bear soubriquets such as ‘Soapy’ Sudd or ‘Samson’ Sanderson and say things like ‘Clear aht ov ‘ere Mr ‘iggins!’ or ‘lumme, guv’nor!’, as well as Gregg’s love for copious use of the exclamation mark and archaic forms like ‘yclept’ and ‘mulct’. After this diversion however, the plot settles back into more familiar ground as Higgins sets out to track down a gang of crooks who were based in the country house and are involved in blackmail, as well as solve the murder. This is further complicated when the landlady of Harry Hamper’s digs disappears and her body is fished from the Thames.
After many a diversion and blind alley the action concludes with Higgins trapped in a darkened house and engaged in deadly game of cat and mouse with two of the criminals, only escaping by the skin of his teeth. The case appears to be wrapped up – only for Gregg to spring a unexpected surprise in the epilogue which overthrows our previous understanding of the chain of events.
Whilst I’m much more a devotee of the puzzle plot, the rather improbable thriller elements here didn’t manage to destroy my enjoyment of this one – possibly because they are mostly contained in that frantic thirty pages near the middle. I also noticed that this book has many 4 and 5 star reviews on a well known site. Any aficionado of classic crime seeking something a little different might well enjoy investigating this – and it is readily available online and print on demand, though whether the latter are authorised is unknown.
Inspector Cuthbert Higgins #3
Preceded by The Three Daggers
Succeeded by The Brazen Confession
No record of any modern reprint or audiobook has been traced by the reviewer. Print on demand copies are available, legality unknown. The book is available online as an ebook and to read at the Hathi Trust website here.
First Edition Details
Originally published by Hutchinson & co., 1930
Purple Cloth Boards, pp 248, 8vo
Title and author stamped in black on upper spine. ‘Hutchinson’ stamped in black at bottom. Double ruled line at top and bottom.
Title and author stamped in black on front inside ruled box.
Originally published by L MacVeagh, The Dial Press, New York, 1930
Red Cloth Boards, pp 308, 8vo
Title and Author stamped in black on spine separated by three + signs. ‘Lincoln Macveagh The Dial Press’ stamped at bottom.
Also published by Mason Publishing, 1937
R E Faust
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