The Fortescue Candle

A review of The Fortescue Candle by Brian Flynn

Published originally in 1936 and reissued by Dean Street Press, The Fortescue Candle is the eighteenth in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series and sees the author adopt another change in tone and style. This is very much Flynn in full-throttle Conan Doyle mode with a tilt of the cap in the direction of The Five Orange Pips and an audacious raid on the works of G K Chesterton for the resolution of what is a perplexing mystery that even has Bathurst’s grey cells stumped for most of the book.   

Bathurst is in a rather facetious, playful mood, littering his speech with allusions, especially to cricketing stars of the time, and prepared to play the role of the contemplative sleuth, relaxing with a pipe on the go, strictly tobacco, and allowing his brain to toy with the complexities of the case. The text also contains several references to his previous cases, which are probably mystifying to those for whom this is their first encounter with Flynn, and unnecessary for those who have loyally followed the series.

Those expecting this to be a mystery around the theft of a valuable candle will be sorely disappointed. The title is derived from a throwaway, albeit clever, allusion which Bathurst uses to describe Griggs’ behaviour around the actress, Phillida Fortescue. That an obiter dictum made its way to become the title for the novel perhaps illustrates Flynn’s difficulty in encapsulating a rather diffuse storyline into a succinct phrase.

Griggs is the Home Secretary, one of whose duties in an age of capital punishment, is to determine whether the death sentence is to be carried out. After some reflection he rejects the appeal of the Fowles brothers, earning the enmity of their father. Griggs is also a philanderer who not only has a thing for Miss Fortescue but has been pestering a Miss Wells and is warned off by her father, Charles. Griggs is found dead shot in bed in a hotel where both Fowles and Wells senior were staying. Was this revenge?

Curiously, though, in his pursuit of Miss Fortescue some months earlier Griggs had been at the theatre in St Aidans, backstage when one of the actresses, Daphne Arbuthnot, was poisoned on stage. Several of the characters who were staying at Griggs’ hotel on the night of his murder were also at the theatre in St Aidans. Was there a link between two seemingly random and radically different deaths and, if so, what was it?

To add intrigue, melon seeds are found, initially in a book on elocution that Griggs was reading at the time he was shot, and four on his luggage at St Aidans. As anyone who has read their Sherlock Holmes only a fractionally as assiduously as Flynn has will know, they are the calling card of the Ku Klux Klan. Is there an international dimension to the killing of Griggs, given his position in government, but if so, how does the poisoning of Daphne Arbuthnot fit in?

There are the usual twists and turns and some fruity red herrings, and what solves the Griggs case is Bathurst’s realisation that he failed to appreciate the importance of another obiter dictum and the opportunities for confusion offered by diction and homophones. The motivation for Griggs’ death is rather leftfield, which even the most careful reader would have been unlikely to anticipate, and the unlucky murderer struck before another, who had already failed to kill the Home Secretary with disastrous consequences, had the opportunity to strike.

It was a curious book with a plot that did not bear too much scrutiny, not least a Home Secretary who travelled alone and had more time for his affairs than those of the state, but for those of us who can suspend belief for long enough, it was an entertaining enough tale.     

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