The plot thickens when fragments of human bones are found among the lime that passed through the Rothers' kiln. Tragedy strikes again when a body is found at the base of a cliff; but was it suicide or murder? Fortunately, among Meredith's local confidantes are an imaginative mystery writer and a curious anatomist, both excited to assist and learn new facts of the case.
I enjoyed a number of aspects of this story, from the detailed landscape descriptions and clear understanding of the chosen geography (Bude resided in this part of England) to the attempts at lighter humour. (One example: the author provides his grounded detective protagonist with an excitable son steeped in the latest gangster pulp fiction.) Just as with the output from fellow procedural plotters R. Austin Freeman and John Rhode/Miles Burton, The Sussex Downs Murder is admirable in its A-to-B-leading-to-C, quiet yet important clue discoveries and experiments that let its investigator doggedly follow the path to a solution.
The principal problem, for me, was that it takes the determined Superintendent Meredith far too long to arrive at that solution; I would presume that even casual readers of detective fiction would intuit the perception shift that takes Meredith nearly the whole book to see. I hardly ever traffic in SPOILERS in my reviews, but the circumstances that let the reader spot the "twist" well in advance are worth a brief discussion here, especially as steps could have been taken to obscure the revelation and give the reader a less linear puzzle to piece together.
SPOILER PARAGRAPHS BEYOND:
I feel like the problem begins with the scenario of a missing body and, later, skeletal remains, which new and veteran mystery readers rightly view with immediate suspicion. Nicholas Blake knew not to underestimate the intelligence of the mystery reader, which is something I dearly love about his Nigel Strangeways stories. His amateur sleuth will often express suspicions and hypotheses running parallel in the moment with the thoughts of the observant reader. In There's Trouble Brewing (1937), we have the spectacle of a corpse reduced to a skeleton after an intense night trapped in a brewery pressure boiler. But does the body truly belong to the missing tyrant who owns the company? Here Blake takes the smart approach. Strangeways is immediately skeptical about the skeleton's identity, and by stating this concern, the narrative accomplishes two things: 1) it allows the reader to trust that the detective is up to the task and that he's not overlooking the obvious, and 2) once stated, the possibility sinks again to a 50/50 prospect: either the body belongs to Eustace Bunnett or it does not.
With The Sussex Downs Murder, John Bude presents a missing body mystery, but never lets his earnest but unimaginative policeman wonder whether the skeleton fragments might belong to anyone other than the assumed victim. As a result, suspicion soon blooms for the reader, who wonders with each chapter why the stolid detective doesn't explore this possibility.
Another real handicap to Bude's story is his decision to offer up only three principal characters as suspects; because of this, the various combinations of criminality among the trio are quite limited. It would be simple to add some more people to the mix who could pleasantly complicate the picture, from an ex-employee with a grudge against the brothers to a cousin with scheming designs to inherit. Anyone who could increase the variables of plot possibilities would be welcome, especially since an anonymous figure known as The Cloaked Man seems to be a key to the solution. Instead, John Bude surrounds Meredith with colorful characters who really can't be considered suspects: they are witnesses and interested parties, but there is no earthly motive for murder between them.