Tag Archives: Brian Flynn

The Case Of The Painted Ladies

A review of The Case of the Painted Ladies by Brian Flynn – 230401

Originally published in 1940 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, The Case of the Painted Ladies is the 25th outing for Brian Flynn’s amateur sleuth, Anthony Bathurst. One of the things that attracts me so much to Brian Flynn is his willingness to experiment with the genre of detective fiction, an approach that can produce variable results but with this story he delivers an entertaining story, as much a thriller as a conventional murder mystery, with a fascinating, if somewhat implausible, denouement.

The set up to the novel is intriguing, introducing us to Aubrey Coventry, whose final day before he is murdered involves three remarkable things, each of which ultimately have a role to play in understanding the motivation behind and the identity of the culprit but at the time seem bewildering and disparate events, rather in the manner of an early Christopher Bush.

He receives a lucrative business proposition from an American financier, Silas Montgomery, who insists on meeting him at 2am, he visits a clairvoyante who tells him he has no future and has an encounter with a man with a vicious snarl. Most murder victims are unsympathetic characters, who have earned the enmity of all and sundry and are asking to be killed, but Coventry is portrayed sympathetically, which makes his murder seem all the more surprising and motiveless.

There are some curious features about the murder. Coventry was restrained before being strangled, he and his guest, presumably the murderer, were communicating by notepad while they were together, and nothing appeared to have been taken from the room. Andrew MacMorran of the Yard leads the investigation and as the crime seems baffling brings in Bathurst to add some deductive heft to the case. The pair work well together, bouncing off one another to good effect and not without a little wit, but Flynn uses MacMorran’s lack of observation and slowness to grasp the importance of clues to show how clever Bathurst is, a slightly irritating and unnecessary trait.

A couple of scraps of paper found in a discarded painter’s hat found along with the blue overalls on a train provides the detective duo with their major breakthrough and leads them to the art world where the prognostications of the clairvoyante about two painted ladies being the reason for Coventry’s death begin to make sense. As to the identity of the murderer, while I had some suspicions, Flynn cleverly kept that part under wraps while he made his investigators concentrate on the motivation behind the murder, as if the whydunit was more interesting than the whodunit, as ultimately it proved to be.

Bathurst went through the wars in his pursuit for the truth, having been attacked on his return to his flat, his maid having been trussed up, and then shot at while watching a film in a cinema, the pistol shot choreographed with a volley of fire on the film’s soundtrack. Fortunately, Bathurst turned to light a cigarette at just the right moment.

Unusually, and perhaps uniquely in detective fiction, the denouement takes the form of a BBC radio panel game involving a team of BBC writers and a team of sleuths, so designed to trap the villain into revealing themselves. Conceptually it scores highly for invention, but, in execution, it did not seem to me to deliver the killer blow that would move the culprit psychologically to give the game away. I was more taken by the realisation that Bathurst’s team of sleuths was made up of far from obscure individuals created by the crime writing fraternity. Flynn is nothing if not inventive.

True to form, Flynn has delivered an entertaining, inventive, and intriguing tale, which compounds the mystery as to why he ever fell into obscurity. It might be that his choice of idiomatic language, cockney rhyming and public school slang and his use of British sporting heroes made the text less American friendly. Who knows? All credit to the Puzzle Doctor and the much-mourned Rupert Heath for bringing him back.

Death of Mr Dodsley

A review of Death of Mr Dodsley by John Ferguson – 230218

I had not read any of John Ferguson’s crime fiction before, but the recent reissue of Death of Mr Dodsley, originally published in 1937, as part of the British Library Crime Classics series prompted me to pick up a copy. It is sub-titled a London bibliomystery and is concerned with the murder of a second-hand bookseller, the eponymous Mr Richard Dodsley. Ferguson goes to great pains in the book’ epistolary dedication to point out that his narrative will be fairly clued and, to be fair to him, it is, perhaps too fairly as some readers will champ with impatience as the investigators dawdle towards a resolution. My take on this was perhaps influenced by having just read Brian Flynn’s The Case of the Faithful Heart which uses a similar device.

The best part of the book is the opening chapters. Surprisingly, we start in the Houses of Parliament where MPs are preparing for an important division upon which the Government’s future is at stake. It is a clever device to introduce us to an up-and-coming politician, David Grafton, who is leading the opposition to the bill and, through him, his daughter, Margery, who has just written a crime novel, Death at the Desk, which has been panned by the critics and, to her face, by her boyfriend, Dick Dodsley, the bookseller’s nephew, as being too unrealistic.

The focus then switches to the environs of Charing Cross Road where a rather slow policeman has to deal with a drunken man who detains him with a story of an open door in the street. When free from his limpet-like drunkard PC Roberts finds the door, pushes it open and finds the body of Mr Dodsley who has been shot. The only clues are three discarded cigarette butts, two spent matches, and a straight hair clip. Dodsley had been working late – he was murdered according to his smashed watch at 3.04am – to complete a catalogue of rare books which had to be delivered to the printers the next day. Clearly, someone was waiting for him and had removed some of the books to make a spyhole through the bookshelves to his desk.

Immediate suspicion falls upon the nephew, especially as there had been some rare books stolen during the previous few weeks, which amateur sleuth, Macnab, had been called in to investigate without success. Ferguson has fun in drawing Dodsley’s three assistants, the ambitious but impecunious Carter and two female assistants who have their claws into each other and one of whom is besotted by both the cinema and Dick Dodsley. To add to the mix there are striking similarities to Dodsley’s death and the murder in Margery Grafton’s novel.

Leading the police investigation are Inspector Mallett – yes, another Mallett, an officer sharing the same surname as Mary Fitt’s series detective – and Sergeant Crabb who represent the old and new schools of policing respectively. They make heavy weather of the case, convinced that there were a pair of accomplices, a man and a woman. Macnab, called in to protect Dick’s interests by Margery, fares little better initially but the pace of the book, which has almost slowed to a standstill, picks up as he gets his teeth into the problem.

A lock, a bus ticket, and an overly helpful unhelpful associate move Macnab nearer to the truth. In a scene in which all the suspects are assembled Macnab reveals his reconstruction of what happened that fatal night and reveals the culprit who is promptly arrested. However, there is a further twist in the tale at the end as in a private assignation at the bookshop Macnab hands over some documents to a grateful recipient which explain part of the motivation for a savage and senseless crime.

Margery Grafton’s theory was that murderers always made one mistake. A careless but fatal mistake over a pile of books proved the undoing of Dodsley’s murderer. An enjoyable read, but it was too variable in its quality to be a true classic. Nevertheless, I will look up more of Ferguson’s work.

The Case Of The Faithful Heart

In memoriam, Rupert Heath – the man who helped ignite my love for Golden Age Detective Fiction.

Exegit monumentum aere perennius

Requiescat in pacem.

A review of The Case of the Faithful Heart by Brian Flynn – 230213

There are some fascinating themes in The Case of the Faithful Heart, originally published in 1939 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. It must be a tad disconcerting to open the papers and find that your death has been reported. At least, if you are a public figure, you have the opportunity to see what people really thought of you. This is what happened to novelist, Keith Annesley, on the fateful day of June 8th. He shared his name with an American politician and due to a mix-up on the editorial floor was to have serious and tragic consequences for Annesley and others.

Authors can be tricky characters, always prone to reinventing themselves to cover up a backstory. Flynn, exploring a theme used by ECR Lorac in Death of an Author where two writers assume different personae, gives his representative of the writing community a backstory that goes to the nub of Anthony Bathurst’s twenty-fourth case.

Alfred Lord Tennyson has rather gone out of fashion these days, but a feature of Golden Age detective fiction is how often his poetry comes up, whether it be Miss Silver who quotes the poet at the drop of a stitch or, here, where the knowledge of Aylmer’s Field provides Bathurst with a clue to the psychology of the person he is seeking. At least the reference is directly relevant here, in that Aylmer is also the surname of the vicar and the strewing of one grave with violets and another with yellow roses mimics the actions in the poem.

It is another case of an amateur sleuth having a busman’s holiday, Bathurst taking a well-deserved break in the Glebeshire village of Lanrebel. However, disaster follows him as does his reputation and it is not long before he is engaged by Ann Hillier to investigate the tragedies that have beset her family at Hillearys. Firstly, her mother, Jacqueline, returns in the car, bloodied and bruised, clothing ripped and grass-stained, only to expire from an overdose of chloral hydrate. She mutters “The Mile Cliff. Two” before she dies. The day after her funeral her grave is strewn with violets.

Then Ann’s brother, Neill, is found dead on a stormy night with his head stoved in – his grave is subsequently strewn with yellow roses – and then father, Paul, is found in his study, strangled, although he had a revolver with him. Bathurst investigates as a private citizen rather than as an adjunct to the police, although his calling card with its reference to Scotland Yard opens a few doors and he avails himself of his relationship with Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, to find some valuable information about a photographic studio. The bumptious attitude of the local Inspector, Rockingham, makes it less likely that Bathurst will cooperate with the official investigation.

Acting as Bathurst’s Watson is Annesley who has also come down to Lanrebel for a holiday and, initially, it is a baffling set of circumstances, with precious little in the way of clues or motive. However, Bathurst begins to see some light when the family physic, Pakenham, indicates that Jacqueline seemed to hold a candle for someone, and when Ann brings him her mother’s personal diaries which offer some clues about a long-lost love. A trip to an eminent public school in Trinket which, coupled with the reference made by the Reverend Septimus Aylmer to the Tennysn poem, provides him with the proof that he needs.

Annesley returns to Lanrebel to see the conclusion of the case and the duo wait in the graveyard at midnight to see whether the culprit will take Bathurst’s bait. No one turns up and there is a very good reason for that.

The story is fairly clued and I realised what was going on as soon as Bathurst found a vital piece of evidence amongst Jacqueline’s effects. The final resolution, though, left a few too many loose ends for my liking, the explanation of Jacqueline’s state of dress a little unconvincing and the explanation of Neill’s death too improbable. There was a feeling of a shaggy dog tale to the book, and the style smacks of a pastiche, but it is entertaining enough and the twist at the end makes it all worthwhile.

Cold Evil

A review of Cold Evil by Brian Flynn

What I like about Brian Flynn, a sadly neglected writer from the Golden Age of detective fiction and now enjoying a renaissance thanks to the sterling efforts of Steve Barge and Dean Street Press, is his willingness to experiment, to change style, mix things up. He shows a deep appreciation and understanding of the early masters of his craft, especially Conan Doyle, and some of his books veer into the territory previously occupied by the much-derided penny dreadfuls. It might well be that this unpredictability cost him readers, especially if an experiment fails to reach the previously high standards he had set.

I am not quite sure what to make of Flynn’s Cold Fear, the 21st in his long-running series featuring the amateur sleuth, Anthony Bathurst, ALB to his friends and family, originally published in 1938. At its kernel there is a cracking story, but the reader has to work hard to find it. It is a very atmospheric book, mist swirls across the moors and heavy frost makes it crunchy underfoot during late December and early January. The Gothic feel to the tale is set in the first chapter when six worthies gather at the vicarage of St Crayle and swap ghost stories. Martin Burke’s tale of a murderous Indian chimera chills his auditors to the bone and raises the concept of the projection of evil as a murder weapon rather than a gun, knife, or poison.

As if to prove the point, one of the party, Chinnery, disappears on the moor as he walks home. His body is found a week later, with a look of terror on his face, but his body is unmarked save for a red mark behind his ear. It is thought that Chinnery had lost his way and froze to death but Bathurst, who had by now been called in to assist in the search for Chinnery, is not so sure and suspects foul play. Then another member of the party is also found in a semi-frozen state with the same red mark behind his ear, but he survives. A third victim, a woman who was not at the party but is a Justice of the Peace is not so lucky, found on the moor, frozen with the tell-tale mark.

The story is narrated by Bathurst’s cousin, Jack Clyst, and this is one of the book’s weak points. As Bathurst proceeds with his investigations, he disappears, leaving Clyst in the dark. He can only speculate what is going on and follow the clandestine instructions that his cousin sends to him from time to time. This means that the results of Bathurst’s investigations, the identity of the culprit, what really happened to the victims, and what the motivation is are presented to the reader as a fait accompli with no attempt on Flynn’s part to give the reader the opportunity to work matters out for themselves.

Bathurst, a master of disguise, lures the culprit into making a mistake, albeit almost at the cost of the sleuth’s life, and all is revealed. For experienced readers of the genre there are obvious inferences as to who the culprit is but the motivation is produced like a rabbit out of a hat.

The other disappointing features of the book are its pacing, there are long periods where the protagonists sit around waiting for things to happen, allowing them to discourse on and develop theories about the ability to spread evil through the power of thought and mass suggestion – perhaps an oblique reference to the worsening political situation in Europe – and the dialogue between ALB and Clyst, where both spar with each other and seem to have digested a compendium of literary quotations for breakfast.

For those anticipating an extravagant Christmas this year, the book is a salutary read as it features one of the gloomiest and unfestive Christmases in literature. But for the arrival of some carol singers you would not know it was any other day.

My feelings for this book are rather like receiving a perfectly cooked steak only to find the vegetables are soggy and cold. One very much for the aficionado.

Tread Softly

A review of Tread Softly by Brian Flynn

Taking its title from a line from W B Yeats, Tread Softly, the twentieth in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series, was originally published in 1937. According to Steve Barge aka The Puzzle Doctor, the man who rediscovered the sadly neglected Brian Flynn and in conjunction with Dean Street Press have painstakingly reissued them for a modern audience, this is Flynn’s masterpiece and the book which convinced him that it was worth trying to revive the author’s fortunes. There can be no higher praise.

The first thing to strike the reader is the unusual premise. Chief Inspector Andrew McMorran of the Yard and Anthony Bathurst in full Holmesian mode are discussing the case of Claude Merivale, a film actor, who has voluntarily turned himself in, readily confessing that he has killed his wife, Vera. However, he claims that it was involuntary murder, being in the grip of a powerful and vivid dream in which he felt the need to defend himself. In doing so, he lashed out and strangled his wife. It seems a rather binary problem; either Merrivale is lying, and it is murder most foul, or it is an accidental, albeit tragic, death, one that could send shock waves amongst sleeping partners.

Flynn then uses a series of letters to throw some light on to the relationship of the Merrivales, firstly from Eve Lamb, the Merrivale’s housemaid who shows unshakeable loyalty to her dead mistress, then from Claude’s sister, Jill, who declares her devotion to her brother, and then from one of Claude’s fellow actors, Peter Hesketh, who pledges that the company is right behind him even though they seem to be coping well without him in bringing their latest film to a conclusion. The letters bare close reading as they do contain some hints and clues which as the novel progresses, become increasingly important.

Although McMorran and Bathurst do some sleuthing, unearthing a photograph of Vera with a man, presumed to be her husband but about which Jill finds some troubling detail, and a sighting of Merrivale returning home on the night in question considerably earlier than he had said, they do not get very far. In the absence of any new developments. The trial goes ahead. Here Flynn gives short pen pictures of the nine men and three women true, giving us some insight into their thinking. The defence, as masterful as is it is obvious, prevails and Merrivale, halfway through the novel is acquitted.

But that is not the end of the case and Bathurst refuses to be defeated, wracking his brains and carrying out further inquiries to get to the bottom of what really happened on that fateful night. A second murder gives him something to get his teeth into and the solution is ingenious. Although working alongside McMorran, Bathurst rather sours the relationship at the end, going rogue and playing judge and jury himself.

Along the way we have ill-fitting dentures, a complex family relationship, mistaken identities, a pair of duck white suits, a letter someone is anxious to recover, although its contents are never disclosed, someone who always seems to have got somewhere just before Bathurst, and much more. There are also some wonderful characters, none more so than Pike Holloway, a police constable who spotted Merrivale returning home early. He is delighted to sit at the feet of two masters of his profession and quaff beer in generous quantities while they discuss the nuances of the case. Inevitably, his evidence is not quite what it seemed to be.

Flynn has produced an intriguing mystery which keeps the reader on their metaphorical toes until the end and played around with the novel’s structure to introduce fascinating insights and perspectives. To my mind, the book’s weakness is motivation. Undoubtedly, people at the time had a higher sense of honour than prevails nowadays but would the indignities suffered really lead to murder? Nevertheless, it is highly enjoyable.