A review of The Orange Axe by Brian Flynn
What I particularly enjoy about a Brian Flynn novel is that you are never quite sure what you are going to get. Rather than follow a tried and tested format, Flynn is happy to experiment and change things around. This, the ninth outing of his amateur sleuth, Anthony Bathurst, originally published in 1931 and rescued from obscurity by Dean Street Press, could be viewed as a more conventional crime novel, with the emphasis on investigating a rather complex set of events. In Flynn’s hands, though, there is always a little more beneath the surface.
The set up of the crimes relies on two scenarios which were to become standard tropes of crime fiction, a murder conspiracy, and a masked ball. However, at the time Flynn wrote his book, they were both relatively fresh concepts and his idea of combining the two into one plot adds a further dimension to the plotting devices. To employ two separate conspiracies to kill the same victim is a sign of a malevolent genius at work.
For those who have been following the series, we learn a little more about Bathurst, who, hitherto, has been a rather chameleon-like figure. His investigatory genius, we are told, are due to his complete indifference to women whom he regards with “tolerant cynicism [rather] than intellectual arrogance”. For reading matter, he chooses the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, not everybody’s cup of tea even in more religious times. He is also, bizarrely, the Police Commissioner’s go-to detective. When Sir Austin Kemble says he will employ the best detective brains to solve the puzzle, it is not one of his paid employees he turns to but Bathurst.
Psychologists, sociologists, and feminists would have a field day with these snippets of both Bathurst’s character and the attitudes of the time, but they do add a bit of colour to a character who had seemed to be somewhat ill-defined.
The book opens with a group of conspirators laying plans to murder André de Ravanac who is blackmailing Lady Pelham. There are also suspicions that he is Le Loup de Poignard, an assassin who, having eluded capture in Paris, had gone to ground. The plan is to commit the murder at Lady Pelham’s forthcoming masked ball, to which de Ravanac has been invited, and where, conveniently all the attendees will be in disguise. The conspirators draw lots to assign each their role, the idea being that while the deed will be accomplished, none of the conspirators will know enough to be a threat to the others, a plot device Agatha Christie used three years later in Murder on the Orient Express.
The murder takes place, a dagger to the heart, incidentally the calling card of Le Loup de Poignard, and seems to have been the most impossible of impossible murders with the culprit neither seen entering nor leaving the scene of the crime. Bathurst, called in to investigate, discovers a gun hidden in a claret jug in the room where the murder took place and wonders why it was there. Add to the mix, the fact that the room was reserved for the ball’s guest of honour, the President of San Jonquilo. Was there a conspiracy to murder him too? But why was de Ravanac’s erstwhile mistress subsequently murdered? And just who was Le Loup and why were the colours of San Jonquilo, orange and black with an emblem of an orange axe, found at the scene of both murders?
Bathurst soon realises that the affair is more complicated than it seemed. The book ends with an exciting showdown between the sleuth and the culprit, whose identity is a little surprising. I am not sure that Flynn plays entirely fairly with his readers, but that does not mar what is an original and very entertaining story.