Tag Archives: Anthony Bathurst

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.

The Horn

A review of The Horn by Brian Flynn

Expect the unexpected. If there are writers of so-called Golden Age detective fiction that this warning can be fairly applied to, then Gladys Mitchell and Brian Flynn fit the bill. The Horn, the fifteenth in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, is a case in point. It starts out as a fairly conventional novel but, somewhat bizarrely, plunges the reader into the murky world of the Marquis de Sade.

As with The Triple Bite, Flynn pays homage to Conan Doyle, using themes from the Hound of the Baskervilles, strange goings on on the moor and the eery sound of a hunting horn, and The Speckled Band, where a soon-to-be bride, in this case Juliet Kenriston, is terrorised, by nocturnal visitations of something furry. At the outset Bathurst plays the role of a consulting amateur detective, who is visited by a worried Julian Skene seeking his assistance in unravelling the mystery as to what is happening to the Kenristons.

Ewart Kenriston, a rather aloof, unworldly academic with a passion for marionettes, has two children, both of whom are shortly to be married. Mark, his son, left the dining room on the eve of his nuptials and was never seen again, presumed dead. The sound of a hunting horn was heard that night. Now Juliet, the daughter, shortly to be married to Skene, is being terrorised and the horn has been heard once more. Suitably intrigued, Bathurst, with the assistance of Chief Inspector MacMorran of the Yard agrees to investigate.

Once Bathurst ensconces himself in the local pub, whose landlord has lost his hunting horn, the campaign of terror against Juliet intensifies. She receives a small parcel containing the buttons of Mark’s suit and the contents of his pockets, confirming fears that he has been murdered. There are suspicious characters lurking around the pub and one of the rooms, in which Bathurst was initially entertained, is now out of bounds. Why is that? The locals enjoy a good bonfire and the name of locally trained winner of the Cambridgeshire horse race helps Bathurst see the winning post.

It does not take a genius to work out that the impending marriages of the Kenriston siblings holds the key to the mystery, as does their father’s will. The plot then plunges into the world of esoterica, when Juliet receives a letter containing three dates in the calendar and a piece of doggerel which mentions a reversed apron. A handkerchief bearing a motif in honour of Donatien is found near a secluded the hut, the importance of both becomes clearer as the plot moves to its dramatic conclusion.

In a world before the internet it is handy to have an expert with an extensive knowledge of genealogy and heraldry at their fingertips and an extensive library in which to conduct your researches. Bathurst realises that Donatien was the first name of the infamous Marquis and it is not long before he discovers that one of the suspects is a distant relation.

The theme of sadism runs through the book. At the outset Bathurst and MacMorran discuss philosophically the aspects of murder, concluding that it is not an expression of sadism. Murder, though, is brutal and while Mark’s murder is more prolonged than most in detective fiction it would not rate high of the Marquis’ Richter scale of sadistic practices. Nevertheless, the theme gives a gothic, somewhat bizarre, twist to a tale that is essentially about greed.

Skene is attacked and held captive in the sinister hut, Juliet is lured there, and the building is set on fire. Has Bathurst made an error it letting events run too far? Flynn cleverly builds up the tension, with a not inconsiderable twist at the end.

It is a clever, witty, atmospheric, horror tale, thoroughly enjoyable, but probably not the easiest entry point for someone wanting to dip their toes into Flynn’s work. The moral of the story is always take a cab to visit a consulting sleuth.

The League Of Matthias

A review of The League of Matthias by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn was especially busy in 1934…this is the first of three of his Anthony Bathurst novels that were published that year…the fourteenth in the series…now reissued by Dean Street Press…and once again he keeps his readers on their toes. This is as much a thriller as a piece of crime fiction…straying into the world of international gangs and a sprinkling of love interest…themes that Patricia Wentworth would go on to explore in more detail.

One of the unusual features of the book is its structure, the story told from three perspectives. The first voice we hear is that of Lance…the abbreviation of his first name is important as the reader will discover as the tale unfolds…a young man who is on holiday with a couple of friends. They enter a club…the Red Flare Club in Antwerp…where Lance is taken by a young dancer, Phillipa. To his surprise, she passes him a note telling him that she is in trouble and that he must help her. No true English gentleman could possibly resist such a plea.

They rush back to Phillipa’s gaff pretending to be a married couple…her dance partner, De Verviac, is in hot pursuit…there is a gun battle…someone is killed…Lance and Philippa make a dramatic escape out of the window courtesy of some knotted sheets…making a dramatic escape to England.

The narrative voice then switches to that of Anthony Bathurst. He takes the story back in time and relates part of Maturin’s story from another perspective. Bathurst too is in Antwerp…working with Scotland Yard, investigating the assassination of some British intelligence operatives. Bathurst is in the house where Philippa lodges…witnesses the gun battle…and reveals that the man shot dead was his colleague, Rawlinson.

The key to understanding what is going on lies with the identity of Maturin, precisely who De Verviac is and the shady League of Matthias, named after the thirteenth apostle…a gang of the worst sort of criminals who every six months draw lots to decide which two of their members should fight a duel to the death…the only rule being that no guns be involved. This section requires a different narrative point…Flynn content to provide the background and move the story on in the third person.

The admission of new members to fill the vacancies in the League…unsurprisingly they are not who they seem…and a drawing of lots which pits one of them against De Verviac hastens the mystery’s resolution. De Verviac is strangled by a tall woman wearing a red cloak in the grounds of Maturin’s father’s estate and then in a gun battle there is a further death which leads to a poignant, if a somewhat melodramatic, finale.

In truth, the story relies a little too much on coincidence, misdirection, and false identities to be entirely satisfying…and there is precious little in the way of overt detection…but it is a cracking story. The reader is swept along by this pacy telling of an improbable tale of evil and malice and it is a pleasure just to go with the flow.

Apart from the pace of his narrative, Flynn’s strength is his willingness to experiment with form and character. Bathurst is not a character set in stone…his persona shifts from book to book…more of an organising central character than a rounded figure that you get to know and whose foibles you appreciate…but he is none the worse for that. Flynn writes with an indefatigable sense of fun and infectious enthusiasm…one virus I am more than happy to dice with.

Thoroughly recommended.

The Spiked Lion

A review of The Spiked Lion by Brian Flynn

By the time those of us who are following Brian Flynn’s series in chronological order have reached The Spiked Lion, the thirteenth in his Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1933 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, what we come to expect is the unexpected. Flynn once more changes his style and formula, producing a more conventional detective novel, but one that still surprises. There are elements of sensationalism to be found within its pages, making me wonder whether Flynn saw this as an attempt to integrate some of the racier elements to be found in pulp fiction into the more conservative form of Golden Age detective fiction.

And so we find a band of brothers who are identified and identifiable from a tattoo behind their left knee, a painting with strategically positioned holes, a vendetta, and an inheritance to claim. The deaths are particularly gory, the initial two victims who as well as being poisoned have all the hallmarks of having been attacked by a wild animal which, instead of claws, seems to have been armed with spikes – the spiked lion. Just to add to the fun, there is a third death, which has all the hallmarks of a classic locked room mystery and the dramatic, if somewhat melodramatic, finale has a fatal shooting. The body count is impressive.

Bathurst’s role is also intriguing. When we meet him at the start of the book, he has been invited by Sir Austin Kemble, head of police at Scotland Yard, to consider an unusual case, the death of an eminent cryptographer, Blundell, whose body had been found with serious and unusual injuries and betraying the tell-tale whiff of cyanide, and inside whose coat was a scrap of a note. Bathurst’s role is one akin to Sherlock Holmes, a detective who uses his brain and intuition to make sense of a puzzling set of clues and circumstances. This leads him to suggest that there be a search for another missing person.

This leads them to Wingfield, a distinguished heraldic expert, whose body is found near Sidmouth, bearing similar injuries to and the same whiff of cyanide as were found on Blundell. Bathurst’s role becomes more active at this point, particularly when there is a third death, that of Blundell’s nephew, poisoned in a locked room, in the home of Sir Richard Ingle. Ingle has a further disappointment when he learns that the title and inheritance he had thought was coming his way upon the death of his uncle, Lord Trensham, was being claimed by a son who had been assumed to have died during the war.

From a sedentary start Bathurst transforms into a man of action, putting himself in peril to unmask the culprits and resolve the mystery. In Flynn’s masterly hands he is the embodiment of the perfect all-rounder of a detective, smart enough to think through a problem but confident and brave enough to embrace the physical challenges with gusto.

That there is a conspiracy around the inheritance is clear around the midway mark, but what Flynn leaves cleverly in the air until the end is quite who the conspirators are amongst the suspects and quite what each of their games are. There is a connection between the Blundell, Wingfield, and the claimant to Lord Trensham’s title, but it is more prosaic than we originally are led to believe. Flynn revels in a spot of misdirection and he has ample opportunity with a clever plotline. And the spiked lion turns out to be menacing in more than one way.

There are some loose ends that are not satisfactorily explained, but, frankly, they hardly matter. Flynn has had some fun in producing a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining story that keeps the reader’s interest throughout. For me, that is good enough.

The Edge Of Terror

A review of The Edge of Terror by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn has certainly been one of my discoveries, thanks to Dean Street Press who have rescued his works from obscurity by reissuing them for modern fans of Golden Age detective fiction to discover. The Edge of Terror is the twelfth in his Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1932, and once again Flynn has changed his formula and introduced new facets to the character of his amateur sleuth, ALB. The shock to those who have studiously followed the series in chronological order is to discover that Bathurst, who to date had given the impression of being a confirmed bachelor, as the euphemism had it, was engaged to be married, to Rachel Marquis, who turns up in this story. Their relationship seems frosty, she did ditch him after all and married another, but they collaborate in the end to good effect.

Flynn has chosen to have the story narrated by one of the characters, Doctor Michael Bannerman. His narrative style is a little unsettling at first, straight out of the Bertie Wooster book of public school boy slang, and then becomes a little wearying, until the action hots up and his Woosterisms seem to fade into the background. As before, one drawback of having the tale narrated is that it either relies upon the narrator being always present to witness all of the action, unlikely if they are a Watson to someone’s Holmes, or are reliant upon a third party relating the key points of what they missed. Fortunately, Bannerman is hit on the head and for the final two chapters, Bathurst takes over the narrative to wrap things up.

A curious aspect of Bannerman’s narrative style is his approach to medical issues. He is absolutely precise in his usage of medical terms and his description of illness and cause of death, as befits a medical man, but this precision is at odds with his generally vacuous descriptive style. Bannerman also hero worships Bathurst and there is evidence of a growing bromance, if only one-sided, as the story develops.

The story starts with an anonymous letter, received by Inspector Goodaker, in which the writer announces that by 31st August the writer will rid what he describes as “your most atrocious town” of “one of the most prominent citizens”. The letter suggests that matters will not end there. Goodaker takes Bannerman into his confidence and on August 31st the police receive another letter announcing the killer’s arrival. The following morning the body of Walter Fredericks, a prominent businessman who owns two cinemas in the town, is found with his throat cut.

Would you believe it, but Anthony Bathurst is in the area on holiday and the Chief Constable immediately ropes him in to help with investigations. One of Fredericks’ sons is also murdered and Bathurst is convinced that the deaths are part of a vendetta. His theory is somewhat shaken when a third murder is committed, that of a confectionary salesgirl at one of Fredericks’ cinemas, but it is this crime which enables Bathurst to get to grips with the puzzle.

Outside of the realms of detective fiction, communities faced with a serial killer – the fascinating introduction tells us that the term was not in use at the time – would response by looking after their own safety by organising vigilante groups. Unusually for detective fiction this is what the townsfolk do, organising a rota of vigilantes and erecting powerful floodlights. Their actions are to no avail and provoke another murder.

Flynn revels in false identities and dark secrets from the past, both elements featuring heavily in this tale. While the identity of the murderer can just about be worked, the motivations for the killing spree are hard to determine and require Bathurst’s detailed explanation at the end for it all to make sense.        

It is not a perfect book by any means, but it is thoroughly enjoyable. Flynn is not afraid to mix his styles and approaches and can be relied upon to produce a splendid piece of entertainment. Oh, and there is another superb pub name to add to the collection – the Cat and Coffee-Pot.