Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Murder on the Bus by Cecil Freeman Gregg

Cecil Freeman Gregg (1898-1960) was a chartered secretary and accountant born in London. He published 42 mysteries between 1928 and 1960, with two main series characters, Inspector Cuthbert Higgins and Harry Prince. Harry Prince was a thief who was driven to a life of crime due to the death of his wife Ethel. Cuthbert Higgins is a versatile Scotland Yard detective who can engage in fisticuffs as well as unravel a complicated mystery. (From the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930698/Gregg%2C%20Cecil%20Freeman.)

The Murder on the Bus (Hutchinson, 1930) is Gregg’s third mystery. Inspector Higgins starts his day with a letter purporting to be from a small-time criminal telling the police that he will have committed suicide by the time they receive his letter. Higgins sends a constable to investigate. Indeed the criminal lay dead in his room, apparently from gas. The inquest finds the cause of death to be suicide and the file is closed, only to be re-opened when a representative from the gas company remonstrates with the inspector days later. It seems there wasn’t enough money in the meter for gas to have been the cause of death. Yet that was the finding of the autopsy. So how did this man die?

While Higgins is dealing with this puzzle, he’s also looking into a second one. A man is found shot to death on the top of a city bus. He was sitting in the back row of the open bus, where no one could possibly sit behind him, yet he was shot in the back. Higgins decided the shot had to have come from one of the houses the bus passed on its route. Deciding on which houses to search out of the possible thousands was a nice exercise in logical deduction.

Searching for the identity of the shooting victim takes Higgins to a small village and a country manor which he discovers too late is inhabited by a gang of blackmailers with connections to both dead men. Getting away from them requires a good deal of ingenuity and even more physical exertion. Higgins seems to be unusually athletic for someone his age.

Considering the amount of action, the story unfolds slowly. It’s over 230 pages long and could have been edited to speed up the momentum which is leisurely. It’s not exactly a procedural and it’s not an amateur detective tale; I’m not sure how to categorize this book, other than Golden Age. Perhaps Gregg was still finding his way to his style; comparing this early work to a later Inspector Higgins might be instructive.

The plot itself was nicely complicated with a twist at the end I didn’t see coming. I doubt that I will search for more of Gregg’s work but I will likely read another one if it comes my way. A note from the publisher of the ebook I read stated it was based on the version published by The Dial Company in New York. All English spellings were Americanized and “some additional notes and clarifications have been added for the modern reader’s benefit”. I am wondering just how extensive this edit was and if it contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the book.

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