The Five Red Fingers – Brian Flynn
This is the fifth in Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1929 and now reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press. I raced through it, which was appropriate as it has a horse racing theme. Julius Maitland, a South African millionaire now based in Blighty, has an overwhelming ambition to own a horse that wins the Epsom Derby and in Red Ringan he has a horse that will do it. The trouble is that his wife, Ida, also owns a horse, Princess Alicia, which also has an excellent chance, but he refuses to enter it.
Just before the race Maitland is allegedly summoned back to South Africa on business and in his absence, Ida enters her horse in the race and in a close finish is just pipped at the post by Red Ringan. Matters are complicated when a telephone call on the day of the race summons police to a house in Friningham where Sir Julius’ body is found. More importantly, he had been dead for a couple of days.
Some of the plotting revolves around the esoterica of horse racing. Under the rules of the Derby the owner of a horse has to be alive when the race is run. Maitland’s death means that Red Ringan is disqualified and the race is awarded to Princess Alicia. Then there is the Calcutta Auction where contestants bid amongst themselves to “buy” each of the runners of the race, the holder of the winning horse scooping the pot created by the auction. The disqualification of Red Ringan and the award of the race to Princess Alicia has a big financial implication to the holders of the tickets in the Calcutta Auction, surely motive enough to do in Maitland.
Astonishingly, although the police are involved from the start, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Austin Kemble does not reckon them up to the job and calls in Bathurst and the pair set out to find out what Maitland was doing in Friningham, what has happened to a missing bullet, why was he killed and who did it. The case turns, in part, on an extraordinary coincidence, Bathurst finding a young girl on the same spot where she witnessed something which helped the amateur sleuth piece things together. He gets the information in exchange for some money which the girl will use to complete her collection of cigarette cards. We learn later on that she did complete the collection but not whether she smoked all the fags.
In truth, the plot has a number of holes in it and the unmasking of the culprit requires the to make a confession, Bathurst not being exactly sure until that point the identity of the culprit. Inevitably, too, Maitland is not who he seems and carries dark secrets from his former life in South Africa which come back to bite him. But this reader was prepared to suspend his critical faculties as it was an entertaining read with enough red herrings to keep you on your toes. Like Bathurst I had a vague sense of how it all hung together but the denouement was still a bit of a shock.
As to the book’s title, it is a reference to a handprint that Bathurst found in a shed which convinced him that Maitland had come to a sticky end there and not in Friningham where his body was dumped. If you enjoy light detective fiction, it is an odds-on certainty that you will enjoy this.