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.