Tag Archives: Sir Austin Kemble

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.

The Ebony Stag

A review of The Ebony Stag by Brian Flynn

Two bits of good news. First, Dean Street Press have just reissued books 21 to 30 in the Anthony Bathurst, for which any Brian Flynn fan is truly grateful. Secondly, they were kind enough to send me a review copy of the twenty-second in the series, The Ebony Stag, originally published in 1938, for which I am truly grateful. I had been following the series in order but decided to leap in time to read it, to fulfil my part of the Faustian agreement. I had some reservations as you miss the development of character and the author’s style by leaping about and some references to earlier cases such as The Sussex Cuckoo flew over my head. Still, one of Flynn’s hallmarks is that he was never content with following one style or template and was a master of experimentation.

With The Ebony Stag the days of Anthony Bathurst being a rather Wodehousian character are long behind us and here we find his amateur sleuth playing a more conventional role, almost Holmesian, but without the flashes of intuition. Bathurst is still remarkably well connected with the police, his association with Police Commissioner Sir Austin Kemble opening doors which would have been steadfastly closed to others. It is through this connection that he is introduced to the local Chief Constable, Major Merriman, whose principal two detectives are engaged on other cases. Naturally, Bathurst is invited to lead the investigation, which he does under the rather feeble guise of Mr Lotherington, his middle name.

The body of a retired rate collector, Robert Forsyth, has been found in his house, stabbed in the chest with a powerful weapon and his face smashed in with such force that one of his teeth was left hanging from his gum. The tooth proves important as Forsyth’s former colleague, Hatherley, reveals that Forsyth did not have a tooth in his head, but wore dentures. Whose was the body and why had the victim’s supposed niece disappeared?

The other important clue at the murder scene is a figurine of a stag made of ebony which was smashed to smithereens by the intruder as if they were hoping to find something hidden inside. Bathurst suspects that this was not the real ebony stag and when he finds it in an outhouse, he discovers it contains a piece of paper upon which is written some verse containing a riddle. The key to unravelling the mystery lies within the verse.

Bathurst sets up his operations at the local pub, The Tracy Arms, and the locals, especially Forsyth’s cronies, soon attract his suspicions. He is befriended by a Swede and Mr Hatherley and his rather eccentric and priggish boss. Bathurst receives warnings to keep his nose out of something that does not concern him and is attacked, although the Swede helps him out of that difficulty. Discovering a marriage certificate leads Bathurst to the identity of the victim and the riddle, once solved, reveals some buried treasure in the vicinity.

There is another victim, Mrs Bryant who helped out at the pub. Clearly, she knew something that the culprit wanted kept hidden, and this puts Bathurst on the right track. There are red herrings galore and the rather languid pace of the book hots up as we head to the denouement in which Bathurst almost meets his maker, culminating in a clever reveal. Whilst I am not sure that Flynn plays fair with the reader, my theory that the least obvious is the obvious assists enormously here if you want to play sleuth.

This is an entertaining and enjoyable book , even if it does not reach the heights of some of the others that I have read. There is also a pub name to add to the list of Flynn’s exotic establishments, the Lion and Lizard. Great fun!     

The Orange Axe

A review of The Orange Axe by Brian Flynn

What I particularly enjoy about a Brian Flynn novel is that you are never quite sure what you are going to get. Rather than follow a tried and tested format, Flynn is happy to experiment and change things around. This, the ninth outing of his amateur sleuth, Anthony Bathurst, originally published in 1931 and rescued from obscurity by Dean Street Press, could be viewed as a more conventional crime novel, with the emphasis on investigating a rather complex set of events. In Flynn’s hands, though, there is always a little more beneath the surface.

The set up of the crimes relies on two scenarios which were to become standard tropes of crime fiction, a murder conspiracy, and a masked ball. However, at the time Flynn wrote his book, they were both relatively fresh concepts and his idea of combining the two into one plot adds a further dimension to the plotting devices. To employ two separate conspiracies to kill the same victim is a sign of a malevolent genius at work.

For those who have been following the series, we learn a little more about Bathurst, who, hitherto, has been a rather chameleon-like figure. His investigatory genius, we are told, are due to his complete indifference to women whom he regards with “tolerant cynicism [rather] than intellectual arrogance”. For reading matter, he chooses the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, not everybody’s cup of tea even in more religious times. He is also, bizarrely, the Police Commissioner’s go-to detective. When Sir Austin Kemble says he will employ the best detective brains to solve the puzzle, it is not one of his paid employees he turns to but Bathurst.

Psychologists, sociologists, and feminists would have a field day with these snippets of both Bathurst’s character and the attitudes of the time, but they do add a bit of colour to a character who had seemed to be somewhat ill-defined.

The book opens with a group of conspirators laying plans to murder André de Ravanac who is blackmailing Lady Pelham. There are also suspicions that he is Le Loup de Poignard, an assassin who, having eluded capture in Paris, had gone to ground. The plan is to commit the murder at Lady Pelham’s forthcoming masked ball, to which de Ravanac has been invited, and where, conveniently all the attendees will be in disguise. The conspirators draw lots to assign each their role, the idea being that while the deed will be accomplished, none of the conspirators will know enough to be a threat to the others, a plot device Agatha Christie used three years later in Murder on the Orient Express.

The murder takes place, a dagger to the heart, incidentally the calling card of Le Loup de Poignard, and seems to have been the most impossible of impossible murders with the culprit neither seen entering nor leaving the scene of the crime. Bathurst, called in to investigate, discovers a gun hidden in a claret jug in the room where the murder took place and wonders why it was there. Add to the mix, the fact that the room was reserved for the ball’s guest of honour, the President of San Jonquilo. Was there a conspiracy to murder him too? But why was de Ravanac’s erstwhile mistress subsequently murdered? And just who was Le Loup and why were the colours of San Jonquilo, orange and black with an emblem of an orange axe, found at the scene of both murders?

Bathurst soon realises that the affair is more complicated than it seemed. The book ends with an exciting showdown between the sleuth and the culprit, whose identity is a little surprising. I am not sure that Flynn plays entirely fairly with his readers, but that does not mar what is an original and very entertaining story.

The Five Red Fingers

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.