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.