The Ebony Stag

A review of The Ebony Stag by Brian Flynn

Two bits of good news. First, Dean Street Press have just reissued books 21 to 30 in the Anthony Bathurst, for which any Brian Flynn fan is truly grateful. Secondly, they were kind enough to send me a review copy of the twenty-second in the series, The Ebony Stag, originally published in 1938, for which I am truly grateful. I had been following the series in order but decided to leap in time to read it, to fulfil my part of the Faustian agreement. I had some reservations as you miss the development of character and the author’s style by leaping about and some references to earlier cases such as The Sussex Cuckoo flew over my head. Still, one of Flynn’s hallmarks is that he was never content with following one style or template and was a master of experimentation.

With The Ebony Stag the days of Anthony Bathurst being a rather Wodehousian character are long behind us and here we find his amateur sleuth playing a more conventional role, almost Holmesian, but without the flashes of intuition. Bathurst is still remarkably well connected with the police, his association with Police Commissioner Sir Austin Kemble opening doors which would have been steadfastly closed to others. It is through this connection that he is introduced to the local Chief Constable, Major Merriman, whose principal two detectives are engaged on other cases. Naturally, Bathurst is invited to lead the investigation, which he does under the rather feeble guise of Mr Lotherington, his middle name.

The body of a retired rate collector, Robert Forsyth, has been found in his house, stabbed in the chest with a powerful weapon and his face smashed in with such force that one of his teeth was left hanging from his gum. The tooth proves important as Forsyth’s former colleague, Hatherley, reveals that Forsyth did not have a tooth in his head, but wore dentures. Whose was the body and why had the victim’s supposed niece disappeared?

The other important clue at the murder scene is a figurine of a stag made of ebony which was smashed to smithereens by the intruder as if they were hoping to find something hidden inside. Bathurst suspects that this was not the real ebony stag and when he finds it in an outhouse, he discovers it contains a piece of paper upon which is written some verse containing a riddle. The key to unravelling the mystery lies within the verse.

Bathurst sets up his operations at the local pub, The Tracy Arms, and the locals, especially Forsyth’s cronies, soon attract his suspicions. He is befriended by a Swede and Mr Hatherley and his rather eccentric and priggish boss. Bathurst receives warnings to keep his nose out of something that does not concern him and is attacked, although the Swede helps him out of that difficulty. Discovering a marriage certificate leads Bathurst to the identity of the victim and the riddle, once solved, reveals some buried treasure in the vicinity.

There is another victim, Mrs Bryant who helped out at the pub. Clearly, she knew something that the culprit wanted kept hidden, and this puts Bathurst on the right track. There are red herrings galore and the rather languid pace of the book hots up as we head to the denouement in which Bathurst almost meets his maker, culminating in a clever reveal. Whilst I am not sure that Flynn plays fair with the reader, my theory that the least obvious is the obvious assists enormously here if you want to play sleuth.

This is an entertaining and enjoyable book , even if it does not reach the heights of some of the others that I have read. There is also a pub name to add to the list of Flynn’s exotic establishments, the Lion and Lizard. Great fun!     

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