The Murders near Mapleton – Brian Flynn
Never judge a book by its title. The title of this cracker of a story, originally published in 1929, and now reissued thanks to the efforts of Dean Street Press, is a real turkey. Originally, Flynn wanted it to be called the Case of the Red Bonbons, although his publishers thought that this name for a Christmas cracker, technically correct as Thomas Smith drew his inspiration for the cracker from a piece of Parisian confectionary by that name, was a little obscure for a 1920s readership and foisted this clunker of a title on him. Perhaps it was this inattention to the finer but all-important details of launching a book onto the unsuspecting public that contributed to Flynn’s ill-merited fall into obscurity.
Murder mysteries set over the festive period are almost ten a penny. They are perfect for assembling a motley collection of characters into one place and the usual descent of snow impedes escape. Flynn’s book is a cut above most of the rest and opens with Christmas festivities in full swing. The host, Sir Eustace Vernon, leaves the dinner table abruptly saying he needs to attend to something urgently. Later it is discovered that he has disappeared and that the butler, Purvis, who is not all he seems to be, has been killed by poison. He has a red cracker on his person.
This is the fourth Anthony Bathurst novel. We first meet the amateur sleuth motoring back to London with the police commissioner, Sir Austin Kemble, whom after the Black Twenty-Two case is in awe of Bathurst’s talents. They journey comes to an abrupt end when they spot a body by the side of the railway track at a crossing, seemingly having been struck by a passing train. It is later identified to be the body of Vernon, but there are two suspicious things about the cadaver; the victim has been shot in the back of the head and has a red cracker in his pocket. Foul deeds are suspected.
At Kemble’s insistence Bathurst takes charge of the investigations, much to the irritation of the local detective, Inspector Craig. Bathurst’s investigations unearth a complex puzzle with more twists and turns than you would normally expect in a novel like this. The clue to unlocking the complexities if the case lies in not taking everything at face value. As well as venturing into Moray Dalton territory by introducing some scarcely credible cross-dressing, there are impersonations of character and changed identities to unravel.
It wouldn’t be a Flynn piece without a major twist at the end, not as jaw-dropping as in the Black Twenty-Two, but sizeable enough to register on the Richter scale. Flynn pulls it all off with his customary aplomb, while serving up a piece of escapism which would light up even the dullest Yuletide. For the reader a Flynn novel at its best is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, with barely a pause in the action to catch one’s breath. Hardly a word is wasted in what is an impressive tour-de-force.
I also tip my hat to him for coming up with one of the finest pub names in 20th century literature, The Cauliflower and Crumpet. I would stop in there for a pint just on account of its name.