Back in October, I raided my piggy bank and procured three of the Brian Flynn reprints, brought to us by the Dean Street Press and the Puzzle Doctor, whose introductions continue to be a mine of information. This is the first of them and if they keep being as good as this one, then I’ll be back for more! Unusually for me I have managed to pick up and read a Christmas country house mystery, at a time of the year when it is seasonally appropriate to do so. Normally I end up reading them in June or July.
However, the novel begins on Christmas Eve at Vernon House, and a Christmas party is being hosted by Sir Eustace Vernon. Yet within a matter of hours this house party will be facing two deaths. Eustace is noticeably fearful and unhappy during dinner and leaves his guests to their own devices when it is over. Time passes and his family and guests begin to wonder where he is, and then suddenly a scream pierces the night… But no corpse is in the offing just yet, though many peculiar clues are, and when the first body is discovered, it has more than one surprise on offer. A second corpse on a train line, found by Anthony Bathurst and Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner, Sir Austin Kemble, concludes the body count and also brings these two sleuths into the matter. Nevertheless, the odd circumstances surrounding these two deaths continue: two suicide notes, threatening Christmas cracker messages written in two different hands, a missing parcel and even a woodland assault. All of these puzzling fragments of evidence set up many questions, for reader and sleuths alike. But your little grey cells are going to have give a peak performance to unravel this perplexing mystery!
Flynn is never an author to waste any time in getting down to business, when it comes to giving his readers a mystery to solve. The action begins from the opening page and the chapters that follow, in the manner of an onion, keep on adding an additional layer of complexity to the novel’s puzzle. As with other novels by Flynn that I have read, I enjoyed in this one, how Flynn always includes a novelty factor into his cases; that quirky detail or two or three, which just gives the crime being solved that added wow puzzle factor. I think Flynn was very comfortable with the 1920s formula for the puzzle-based mystery, and I also think it is a formula that he uses very well, which is evidenced in the surprise he generates around his choice of victims and in his incorporation of unusual clues. One clue I liked in particular was the one involving the Christmas crackers. I’m not sure this is a mystery the reader can fully solve by themselves, as in typical indulgent yuletide fashion, it has its larger than life elements. However, in retrospect, I think the trick is to keep your eye on the questions Bathurst poses, and the investigative threads he originates, yet doesn’t then in the narrative follow up directly. These narrative silences have significance. Although this book takes place over a couple of weeks, a considerable chunk takes place within 24 hours over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, which gives the story a quick pace and the reader a strong desire to find out what happens next.
So, if you’re looking for a new festive mystery read then I highly recommend giving this one a go!