The Billiard-Room Mystery – Brian Flynn
Another reissue courtesy of those enterprising people at Dean Street Press and another writer I had not previously encountered. Published originally in 1927, it caused some controversy at the time because the ending is reminiscent of a better-known classic which had appeared a little while earlier. In Flynn’s defence, though, I think it handles it better and he had finished it sometime before, having a great deal of difficulty in finding a publisher. The two almost certainly came up with the same idea independently.
This is the first book to feature Flynn’s amateur sleuth, Anthony Bathurst – the series ran to fifty although hardly anyone these days would know – and he is portrayed as a man with the polish and breeding of a Wimsey and the intellectual acumen of a Holmes, possessing “uncanny gifts for deduction, inference and intuition. These powers allied to a masterly memory for detail and to an unusual athleticism of the body, separated him from the majority”. There’s nothing like building up your hero. Bathurst even comes with his own Watson, at least for this tale, in the form of the stolid and well-connected Bill Cunningham.
The book seems to be a fairly conventional murder mystery of its time, set in a country mansion, Considine Manor, where a disparate group of individuals assemble for Sir Charles Considine’s annual cricket week house party. The mix of conviviality and sport is interrupted when a maid finds a guest dead on the billiard table with a dagger in the back of his neck and, just for good measure, he appears to have been strangled with one of his own shoelaces. The deceased has committed a fatal dress faux-pas by wearing brown shoes with a dinner jacket, not the done thing, and it prompts suspicions that he was roused from his slumbers by a disturbance which he was investigating when he met his end.
Flynn also presents us with another puzzle. Lady Considine’s pearls are also missing. Are the two crimes linked? The jewellery theft is dealt with fairly cursorily and satisfactorily for the Considines but the murder causes Bathurst and the police team led by Inspector Baddeley more problems.
Kelly has fielded a large list of suspects and the book takes a leisurely course exploring their potential motives and alibis, whittling down the field. We see how the investigation is progressing through the eyes of Cunningham. Kelly clearly has fun with motives and is not averse to throwing in the odd red herring to throw us all off the scent.
Towards the end of the book, though, the tone, pace and voice of the narrative takes a sudden and unexpected twist and all is revealed. Kelly handles the change of gear well and for this reader, at least, it was not quite what I had expected, although, when I thought about it over my evening cocoa aka a gin and tonic, I realised he had rather skilfully sown the seeds for those who were none too blind to see.
I like books that suddenly knock you for six with a violent change of direction, one that transformed what seemed to be a rather safe, conventional, almost hackneyed entertainment into something which was really rather good.