The Case Of The Purple Calf

A review of The Case of the Purple Calf by Brian Flynn

Even the most ardent fan of Brian Flynn would be hard pressed to make a convincing case that this, the sixteenth in his Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, is one of his finest. For such a normally innovative writer it struck me as a tad pedestrian and, stylistically, the language is rather overblown at places and phrases like “it will be remembered that…” suggest that Flynn may have some form of serialisation in mind. It is a shame because the idea behind it was full of possibilities.

It is not often that you come across a story that involves a traveling fair, a dodgy London nightclub called the Purple Calf where you can have kippers and a bottle of wine which must have given it a certain atmosphere, an alligator trainer, an ingenious and somewhat gruesome murder weapon, and a series of motor accidents. The fair provides Flynn with the canvas to develop a series of picaresque characters, including the obligatory dwarf who has a bigger role to play in the mystery than initially meets the eye.

What starts Bathurst off on his trail to solving the shenanigans centring on the Purple Calf is a series of three seemingly unconnected motor accidents, in each of which a young woman is found dead near the vehicle with horrific injuries. Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, thinks they are just tragic accidents, but Bathurst, as his wont, thinks that not only are they suspicious but also that they are linked in some way. Determined to prove Kemble wrong, he sets out to untangle the mystery.

There are a couple of promising leads. The motor accidents take place near the encampment of the travelling fair. Coincidence or a common theme? On the bodies of the three female victims are found coins, but they are only coppers. What was the significance of this? The circumstances of the death of a fourth victim seem at odds with the identified pattern surrounding the other victims. Does this mean that Bathurst has been barking up the wrong tree with his carefully formulated theories?

The old legal principle “exceptio probat regulam” convinces Bathurst that the unfortunate Rosa is an outlier and that her death has nothing to do with the matter in hand. In fact, it rather reinforces his theories. Emboldened, with help from some companions he has picked up along the way and with the sterling assistance of his old policing friends, MacMorran and Norris, he undertakes an audacious raid on the fair. Not only does Bathurst save Margaret Fletcher from a gruesome death, but he solves the mystery of how the victims suffered their gruesome injuries. The American title for the book, as often is the way, The Ladder of Death, rather gives the game away.

There is too much going on off stage in this story for my liking, especially in the resolution of what was really going on at the Purple Calf and how it related to the fair. I had worked out that L’Estrange and Lafferty, the eminence grise of the fair and his sidekick, and the two Brailsfords, seemingly friendly individuals who had imposed their presence on Bathurst, had some connection – Flynn pays homage to Conan Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Lip here – but money counterfeiting and inheritance protection were beyond my ken.

The fair allowed for an ingenious murder method, but it all seemed an extraordinary amount of effort to achieve something that could have been done more easily. Then again, Bathurst would not have had the opportunity to show his genius and we would not have had an entertaining enough story, even though it does not hit the heights Flynn can achieve.

Royal Jubilees

Royal jubilees were much more infrequent than religious jubilees, depending upon the longevity of the monarch and originally marked fifty years on the throne. The first English monarch to reach that landmark was Henry III, but whether he was inclined to celebrate, as in 1266 he was in the middle of fighting a civil war, is doubtful. There are no records to show how Edward III or James VI of Scotland and James I of England celebrated their fifty years on the English and Scottish thrones respectively.

The jubilee of George III was celebrated, though. Curiously, the date chosen for the celebrations, October 25, 1809, was the forty ninth anniversary of his reign, although, technically, the start of his fiftieth year. George’s ability to participate was limited by poor health and failing eyesight but the occasion was marked by a service at Windsor and a fete at Frogmore, which, according to John Stockdale’s The New Annual Register, “in point of taste, splendour, and brilliancy has on no occasion been excelled”.

At 9,30 in the evening the gates were thrown open to the nobility and gentry who had tickets of admission and the Royal family stayed until the early hours, enjoying the sight of Britannia being transported in a chariot drawn by seahorses and an impressive display of fireworks. In London, meanwhile, the Lord Mayor led a procession to St Paul’s Cathedral for a service of Thanksgiving, before finishing the day off with a dinner at the Mansion House.

Celebrations were held throughout the land. Roast ox and sheep, and plum puddings were eaten, strong ale quaffed, sermons preached, bells rang out, flags waved, God Save the King sung, and food and alms distributed to the poor. In Abingdon cakes were thrown from the top of the Market House, while in Blisworth in Northamptonshire, the “respectable” inhabitants gathered at the Grafton Arms for a supper where “harmony and convivial mirth crowned the festivities of the day”. Debts were cancelled and prisoners released, including “all persons confined for military offences” and in Reading some Danish prisoners of war.

One Oxfordshire village reportedly insisted that any child born there during the jubilee year be called Jubilee George or Jubilee Charlotte. For those looking for more conventional souvenirs of the event, there were souvenir medals bearing the portraits of George and his queen, Charlotte, and commemorative plaques, jugs, mugs, and bowls to buy. By the time Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee on June 21, 1887, the range of souvenirs had been extended to include commemorative coins and stamps and a range of bric-a-brac such as teapots, butter dishes, mirrors, handkerchiefs, woven silk pictures, wallpaper, and pipes.

One of the highlights of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, on June 22, 1897, was her stately procession through the streets of the West End, City, and some of the poorer quarters of London, accompanied by many of the crowned heads of Europe and princes, maharajahs, and chiefs from around the world. Cutting edge technology allowed the Queen to send a telegraphic message to all quarters of the globe; “From my heart I thank my beloved people. May God bless them!”

There were two royal jubilees in the twentieth century, both marking the monarch’s twenty-fifth anniversary on the throne, and there have already been three in the 21st century, testament to the longevity of Queen Elizabeth.

Her Platinum Jubilee celebrations are unlikely to match the Heath Robinsonish way in which her grandfather, George V, lit the bonfires to mark his Silver Jubilee on May 6, 1935. At 9.55pm he pressed a button in his study, activating a relay circuit connected to a telephone box in Hyde Park, which blew a fuse inserted in a nearby bonfire, thus setting off the chain of fires.

Boniface VIII introduced jubilee years to the west in response to a period of pandemic, poverty, and war in Europe. There is a curious aptness that 2022 should be a jubilee year too.

Find Of The Week (4)

One of the only reasons to go into a charity shop, apart from supporting a good cause, is in anticipation of finding an item that is being retailed for far less than its monetary value. It requires, of course, that the volunteers fail to spot the import of what they have had donated, unlike Paul Wyman who helps at the Oxfam branch in Brentwood.

As he was sorting through a box of items donated by an unknown donor in October 2020, he came across an unusual bank note. Paul was savvy enough to realise that it could be rare and contacted an auction house. It turned out to be a Palestinian £100 note, issued in 1927 and given to high-ranking officials during the time of the British Mandate there. Fewer than ten are known to exist and a reserve of £30,000 was put on it.

When it went under the hammer on April 28th this year at Spink and Son’s auction house in Bloomsbury it sold for £140,000 netting the charity a tidy profit.

Spare a thought for the unfortunate donor. The moral of the story is always check what you give or throw away.  

Smile Of The Week

I never find shopping a pleasurable experience. It never fails to astonish me when the person behind whom I have been (im)patiently queuing is astonished to find, after painstakingly loading their goods into bags, that they are required to pay for them. This results in them fumbling around in pockets and bags until they find their wallet or purse and finally complete the transaction.

New technology in the form of a Biometric Checkout Programme, trialled in Brazil and soon to be introduced into the UK by Mastercard, may soon change all this. Christened “Payface” it works, inevitably, through a mobile phone app into which users enter their information, including fingerprints and a facial image, which is then paired with their debit or credit machine.

Mastercard claim that you will just need to smile or wave at a camera at the checkout to pay for the goods. Three-quarters of shoppers, according to research, are “positive” about using biometric technology, a market that is estimated to be worth £15 billion by 2026. In some ways, it is the reverse of a shoplifting experience where you have your fingerprints and mugshot taken after you have taken the goods.

Having never knowingly smiled in a shop, it looks as though I am going to have to change my ways.

Twenty-Eight Of The Gang

Our language has lost some marvellous words along the way. Mawwormy was an adjective used to describe someone being picky or the act of fault finding. It owed its origin to a character in Isaac Bickerstaffe’s play of 1769, The Hypocrite. Perhaps being mawwormy is to call a dog that is reluctant to fight a meater, one that only bites into meat.

Advertising has long made its mark in popular speech. A mustard plaster referred to a dismal, doleful, pallid young man and was often used in the form of “put a mustard plaster on his chest”, an attempt to liven him up. The origin of this phrase came from a song written by celebrated music hall and pantomime writer, E L Blanchard, in association with and to promote Colman Mustard. Perhaps the youth referred to knew that his elm is grown, a premonition of imminent death. Elm wood was the most common material coffins were made from.

A Norfolk Howard was a euphemism for a frequent nighttime companion, the bed bug. It owed its origin, James Ware records in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, to a chap called Buggey who advertised in the newspapers his change of name to Norfolk Howard. As well as producing a bit of slang to describe a bed bug, Buggey’s actions provoked a wave of sympathy in the newspapers of the time for people who were saddled with objectionable or vexatious surnames.

The Times even went so far as to print a list of over a hundred surnames that it considered to be vexatious. These included Asse, Belly, Cheese, Dunce, Drinkmilke, Flashman, Bungler, Fatt, Clodde, Demon, Fiend, Funck, Hagg, Holdwater, Juggs, Idle, Kneebone, Lazy, Leakey, Milksop, Honeybum, Pisse, Pricksmall, Pighead, Poopy, Quicklove, Rottengoose, Sprat, Squibb, Shittel, Swine, Silly, Spattle, Teate, Vile, and Whale. How many possessed these surnames and how many followed Buggey’s example is not recorded.