Tag Archives: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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.

Dead Man’s Quarry

A review of Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold

Dead Man’s Quarry is Ianthe Jerrold’s second murder mystery, published originally in 1930 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, and the second outing for her amateur sleuth, John Christmas. After the publication of this novel, she gave up on detective fiction to resume writing more conventional novels. It is easy to see why. That is not to say that there is anything in the least disappointing with another polished piece of work which raises the already impressive bar set by her The Studio Crime published a year earlier. It is more a reflection on the fact that the genre’s conventions and limitations constrained her writing talent.

Jerrold is a much-underrated writer, with a penchant for strong and vivid characterisations. She has an eye for detail, for the traits and characteristics that delineate one individual from another. Her characters are vibrant and memorable, and she is interested enough to explore what makes them tick rather than just using them as the media through which the plot evolves. Aligned to a strong narrative style and imaginative plotting this makes for an entertaining and rewarding read.

However, the dictats of a murder mystery are that all points lead to the resolution of the puzzle and this can be frustrating for a writer who demands a broader canvas upon which to practise her art and develop her skills. It can be read as a mild comedy of manners, poking gentle fun at the mores and predilections of the English upper middle class, as well as a tongue in cheek doff of the cap to some of her predecessors in the genre, most notably Conan Doyle.

In wrapping up her convoluted tale, though, she seems to have got bored. The ending is a tad melodramatic, a little unbelievable and takes the reader somewhat by surprise. It removes the shine somewhat from what had gone before. That may seem a little churlish but up until that point the book had been first rate and was streets ahead of much detective fiction that had preceded her or Jerrold’s immediate contemporaries were writing.

Charles Price has returned from Canada after a fifteen years’ absence to take over the estate he has inherited. He has not troubled to ingratiate himself with his relatives and in particular his uncle, Morris Price, who has been running affairs. On a cycling holiday with the Browning family and others Charles goes missing and his body is found at the bottom of a nearby quarry. He has been shot. The gun found nearby belongs to Morris and his intransigent and haughty attitude leads to his arrest.

Christmas is holidaying in the area with his friend, Sydenham Rampson, and takes an interest in the drama that unfolds as the cycling party search for Charles. He decides to stay on to investigate what really happened as he is certain that Morris is innocent. Rampson, who takes on a Watsonish role, is a scientist at heart, preferring the cold scientific analysis of Thorndyke to the intuitive brilliance of Holmes, is bemused by Christmas’ enthusiasm, satisfied that the cold hard facts point undeniably to Morris’ guilt.

Not everything is as it seems, though, and along the way Christmas discovers Morris’ estranged wife, an ingenious deception and a conspiracy which would have seen the estate fall out of the control of the family. Of course, the day is saved, romanticism and faith triumphs over hard facts, but the explanation of what happened on that fateful day and more importantly the motivation behind the events is both startling and surprising.

A great read.

The Triple Bite

A review of The Triple Bite by Brian Flynn

Most writers of Golden Age detective fiction owed a large debt of gratitude to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his iconic creation Sherlock Holmes, not least because he had established the genre as being one capable of rising above the penny dreadful and displaying some literary merit. They take delight in dropping a reference to the canon of Holmes’ stories or use devices such as a Watson-like companion to faithfully record the derring-do and inductive brilliance of their sleuth. Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930, and Brian Flynn, ever one to experiment with form and surprise his readers, devised this, the tenth outing of Anthony Bathurst, published in 1931 and reissued by Dean Street Press, as a tribute to detective fiction’s premier writer.

During his narrative Watson had a habit of alluding to other cases that Holmes was involved in, but which were never fleshed into full stories. The inspiration for Flynn’s novel comes from a throw away reference to such a case in The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez to be found in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Flynn develops his homage by including some of the standard fare that you might expect in an adventure of Holmes – a criminal mastermind, a coded message, an unusual form of dispatching victims which is almost undetectable.

In this story Bathurst seems to have mainlined a syringe full of Holmesian mannerisms and characteristics. Flynn never seems too concerned about presenting Bathurst as a consistent character throughout the series. Rather Bathurst is a figure whom he can adapt to fit the needs of the plot and setting of the story.           

Inevitably, Flynn chooses to have the story narrated by one of the characters in the story, Cecilia Cameron. This is the third time in the first ten of his Bathurst series that he has chosen this form of narrative and, structurally, it does pose some difficulties as Cecilia is not always as central to the action as, arguably, Watson was and is reliant upon information gathered either after the fact or from others. It is not a fatal flaw and Flynn’s engaging style soon grips the reader in an intriguing and sometimes macabre tale. There is a strong seam of humour, not least in the portrayal of the larger-than-life criminal, Scarlet Lampard with his shock of red hair.

Colonel Cameron is persuaded to buy Dallow Corner as his retirement home, but as soon as he takes residence events take a sinister turn. A piece of doggerel containing a cryptogram has been provided by the wonderfully named “Salmon” Trout to the two men who have helped him, one of whom is Cameron’s nephew, suggesting the presence of treasure in the environs.

The good guys, those associated with Cameron, crack their grey cells to work out where it might be hidden. The bad guys, a gang of violent desperadoes, are also anxious to get their hands on it and are averse to using violence or the threat of violence to secure their prize. The Cameron’s poor housekeeper regularly finds herself tied up in the cupboard. The Colonel dies in mysterious circumstances in what looks to be a case of natural causes, he has a dodgy ticker (natch). This is the cue for Cecilia to call in the services of Anthony Bathurst who perceptively spots the vestiges of three faint marks on the Colonel’s jaw.

The family find themselves under siege, there is another murder and several red herrings. To Flynn’s credit he produces an enthralling story which mixes elements of a thriller with a classic murder mystery and deploys a plot where it is difficult to spot who the culprit is, never mind how the murders were committed.

Flynn is another writer who rarely lets his reader down.

Invisible Death

Invisible Death – Brian Flynn

This is the sixth in Flynn’s excellent Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1929 in the UK – the US edition did not appear until 1936 – and reissued for a modern readership to discover by the indefatigable team at Dean Street Press. It also had an alternative title, The Silver Troika. Both he alternative title and the cover illustration on the reissue could be construed as giant red herrings.

What an enjoyable romp it is, more of a thriller than a standard murder mystery. By this time Flynn had changed publisher and Bathurst seems to have undergone a character transformation, becoming more of a man of action with a certain gung-ho attitude than an intellectual sleuth and is once more ably aided and abetted by his lawyer friend, Peter Daventry, who is even more of a brawler and a crack shot to boot. They also seem to have swallowed and inwardly digested Bertie Wooster’s lexicon of upper-class slang, their dialogue peppered with turns of phrase that would not have embarrassed P G Wodehouse.

There is also a very considerable nod of the head to Conan Doyle. The Silver Troika, a band of evil Russian terrorists, heavily implicated in the murder of the Tsar and on the trail of some incriminating documents and jewellery, seem to have come straight out of The Five Orange Pips. They even insist that their victim leaves the papers in a case on the tennis court at midnight. And if you didn’t get the reference, they are already burnt, of course.  

Bathurst is summoned down to Swallowcliffe Hall by Constance Whittaker to help protect her husband, the Major, from an unnamed threat. It turns out that Major Whittaker was operating in revolutionary Russia and was instrumental in eliminating a number of the Red terrorists. The Silver Troika are after his blood.  

Despite Bathurst’s best efforts, he fails in his principal objective because the Major suddenly drops dead, poisoned, despite no one being near him at the time. Had the Silver Troika effected their deadly revenge, but how did they do it? Or what about the eccentric American entomologist, who keeps appearing on the scene or a deadly butterfly that fluttered around the room? And why are the Troika so beastly to Whittaker’s butler? Has he an even darker past than his association with and unwavering loyalty to the Major would seem to suggest?

With considerably more violence than you would expect from a normally genteel murder mystery of this era, the tale takes some alarming and unforeseen twists. Although Flynn plays fair with his readers if only by allusion and hints, it is almost impossible to guess who the murderer was. The method by which the murder was committed is highly ingenious and is worth reading the book just for that. Justice of a sort prevails at the end by which Bathurst has more than amply demonstrated his talents and ability to solve a knotty problem, even if he left Constance a widow in the process.  

It is great fun and Flynn’s style is so engaging that I found I raced through it in almost record time. That is the hallmark of a good murder mystery cum thriller.

The Mystery Of The Peacock’s Eye

The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye – Brian Flynn

Take a pinch of Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, stir in some of Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone, and add a murder in a dentist’s chair, and let settle before cooking. What you get is this humdinger of a book, as good a piece of detective fiction as I have read in a long while. Perhaps the crime of the 20th century is that the inestimable Brian Flynn has languished in obscurity until recently, when thanks the laudable efforts of The Puzzle Doctor and the wonderful Dean Street Press hi novels have been reissued for a modern audience. If you do not read any other of Flynn’s books, read this.

Published in 1928 it is the third novel in the series involving Flynn’s amateur sleuth, Anthony Bathurst. There are three seemingly unconnected strands running through the book; at the Hunt Ball in Westhampton Sheila Delaney dances with a stranger, Mr X, who departs mysteriously; some months later the Crown Prince of Clorania approaches Bathurst as he is being blackmailed ahead of his forthcoming marriage for an indiscretion; Chief Inspector Bannister’s holiday is interrupted as he is required to investigate the death of a young woman, killed in the consulting room after the dentist found himself locked in the storeroom – yes, identical to Thynne’s plotting four years later. Are these events connected?

Of course they are and Bathurst, who attaches himself to the investigation as the representative of the Crown Prince, and Bannister, who is soon to retire, find themselves on the hunt for a ruthless killer. To add a touch of exotica to the proceedings, there is an Indian on the scene hunting down a fabulous jewel, the Peacock’s Eye, which was looted by some young British officer out in the Raj.

Bannister and Bathurst follow separate courses as they carry out their investigations and much of the book is made up with interviews of suspects and/or witnesses. Each serves the purpose of either throwing up a red herring or adding a discreetly hidden clue to the story. This is another one of the books where the clever amateur seems to make more progress than the plodding professional, but in this case their may be more to it than intellectual gravitas.

The ending of the book serves up as big a surprise as you can imagine and it took me by so much surprise that I decided I would re-read the final few chapters to see if I had missed anything. To be fair to Flynn, I had. There was just one imperceptible hint dropped when Flynn was narrating the travel arrangements of the parties on a boat to Amsterdam. It was easy to miss it but it was vitally important. Having missed it first time round, I had the satisfaction of being floored by something that I had not seen coming but on the second reading, I could appreciate the sheer brilliance and audacity of pulling off the stunt.

The book is beautifully written and flawlessly and ingeniously plotted. It stands head and shoulders amongst anything I have read in the last year and it deserves to be known and appreciated by a much wider audience. A first-class book.