Tag Archives: Brian Flynn

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.     

The Sussex Cuckoo

A review of The Sussex Cuckoo by Brian Flynn

We live in a world of instant communication where a carefully targeted use of social media can whet the interest of your intended audience or solicit information from previously unknown sources. Almost a century ago, the only way to achieve the same end was to insert a personal notice in a newspaper and hope that the intended audience spots it. It is an anachronistic wonder that in detective fiction a carefully placed advertisement in a newspaper often not only produces the desired result but often within hours of the rag hitting the presses. Of course, adverts, at least in The Times, were on the front page and the reader had little else to compete for their attention, but it is a remarkable curiosity how effective they seemed to be.

In this, the seventeenth in Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1935 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, such a notice catches the eye of the amateur sleuth as he peruses his copy of The Times before visiting the home of James Frith in Little Osney at the behest of Inspector MacMorran of the Yard. Frith has a rare collection of Jacobean antiquities which he has inherited and is about to sell them. He is concerned because he has been receiving anonymous and threatening letters and seeks the protection of Scotland Yard. They do one better and send Bathurst down to see him.

Despite taking Bathurst’s advice, Frith is (inevitably) found dead on the lawn, wearing his pyjamas, apparently having suffered from a fatal attack of tetanus. That evening he had interviewed each of the six potential purchasers and, curiously, had told each of them that he had decided to sell to a different person. What was his game? Why was no money or cheque found on the premises? Did Frith really suffer from a fatal attack of tetanus as his physician, who had made the disease his speciality asserted, or was it foul play? And if it was murder, why would a potential purchaser murder the man he was buying from? Surely, if he had murder in mind, he would kill the successful bidder.

There is a distinct change in tone and pace in this story from the previous couple that Flynn wrote. It is less of a thriller, more a contemplative analysis of a complex puzzle à la Sherlock Holmes. Bathurst operates on his own with little interaction with the police, not least because there is little direct evidence of foul play, only Bathurst’s suspicions, the oddity of the situation, and the eccentric behaviour of some of the characters.

It is also a masterpiece of misdirection with the reader only realising late on in the story that they have been led down a very long, complicated, intriguing, perplexing garden path and that there might be a simpler and more mundane explanation closer to home of Frith’s demise.

The old joke that if you borrow a crime novel from a library, always check that the last page is not missing has never been more apt than with this book. Flynn drops his big bombshell right at the last moment with very little explanation or notice, although the warning signs are there if you take the care to spot them. I reread the last quarter of the book to satisfy myself that Flynn had just not pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Flynn clearly had fun at his readers’ expense and this reader, at least, had fun in enjoying a well written, intriguing mystery, where almost nothing is as it seems.

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.

Brazen Tongue

A review of Brazen Tongue by Gladys Mitchell

For those of us who like to follow an author’s series in chronological order, it is always a little disappointing when the next one is not available. The irony of Printer’s Error, Gladys Mitchell’s tenth in her Mrs Bradley series, originally published in 1939, not being available in anything like an affordable version – £1,183.99 anyone? – was not lost on me and so I had to move on to the eleventh, Brazen Tongue, published the following year. Bradley’s books are much more stand-alone affairs than those of other series authors with little in the way of on-going character development and so I consoled myself by thinking that I was not going to lose too much.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up this book. Mitchell’s stories are always challenging. Not for her is the well-worn path of murder, some sifting of the clues and the arrest of the butler. Her stories are denser, inverting and twisting the genre to suit her purpose, and leaving her readers with puzzles which at their best test their mettle and often result in a conclusion which was difficult to see coming. Mitchell described the book in an interview in 1976 as a “horrible book” along with Printer’s Error and it is easy to see why. Its ending is unsatisfying, leaving too much in the air, not providing the clarity that the reader expects from novels of this type. Of course, life is like that and, in reality, many a crime investigation results in an outcome based on probabilities rather than cast iron certainty.

The dissatisfaction I ultimately had with the book also stems from Mrs Bradley’s wonky moral compass. She is fearless and indefatigable in pursuit of the truth, but less so in seeing that justice prevails. It leads her to some odd moral and, dare I say it, class-based choices where it is all right to turn a blind eye to the activities of a young ambitious thing while seeing a working-class man pay for what he might have done.      

The book is set in the early days of the Second World War, the so-called phoney war, and for the modern reader there are many fascinating insights. Windows are blacked out, the Air Raid Patrol wardens and volunteers are working at a newly opened Report Centre, air raid sirens sound, and petrol is in short supply. George, Mrs Bradley’s man, has to resort to syphoning off petrol surreptitiously to have enough to drive her to an appointment and is aghast at the suggestion that he coasts down a hill with the engine off to conserve fuel. Mitchell feels it necessary when describing what is on the menu to remind her contemporary readers that rationing was not yet in force. The only jarring moments come in the portrayal of the Jewish couple, the Councillor a lazy stereotype and the wife given an unnecessary comic accent.

The little town of Willington is rocked by three murders, all committed within the space of twelve hours. The body of a woman, dressed in a night gown, is found in one of the newly erected water cisterns, a courting couple find the body of a prominent councillor, Smith, propped up in the doorway near the cinema, and a girl working at the report centre, Lillie Fletcher, who has gone out to meet her ominously named beau, Derek Coffin, is found with her head bashed in. The case of the drowned woman is particularly perplexing as she met her end in the nearby river rather than the cistern and no one seems to know who she is.

Is there something that connects all or some of these murders and, if so, what, and whodunit? These are the questions that occupy Mrs Bradley, ably assisted by Inspector Stallard, her niece, Sally, and a young reporter, Patricia Mort, seek to establish. The lives of all who seem to have knowledge of what was behind these murders, including Mrs Bradley herself, are in danger and there a number of failed attempts to silence them. By the end of her investigations, Mrs Bradley seems to have a convincing rationale for what had gone, but just as the reader sinks back into their chair, preening themselves on their perspicacity, Mitchell decides to throw all the pieces of the jigsaw into the air once more, see where they land, and make another pattern from them.

It is hard to give a convincing explanation why she does this. Was she dissatisfied with the initial conclusion or interested in seeing how many more or less convincing resolutions she could construct from a set of circumstances? I think that Mitchell is having enormous fun at the reader’s and the genre’s expense. There is a levity, a quiet whimsy, to her writing style and she has tremendous fun along the way, constructing characters whose names may be pieces of nominative determinism and, in the Rat and Cowcatcher, comes up with a boozer with which Brian Flynn would have been proud.

Brazen Tongue is not for the faint hearted nor the Mitchell neophyte, but if you are a fan of Mitchell’s work you will find much to enjoy in it.

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.