As the cover and the title suggest, murder, in this book, strikes on a mode of public transport, a bus in fact. It was pleasing to see the Puzzle Doctor, (who writes the excellent introduction), focus on less well-known examples of this type of mystery during the Golden Age of detective fiction. Death on trains, planes and boats are more frequent, so the bus angle is especially intriguing. I only happen to know of another example, in the form of a radiologue, due to recent reading, which is Francis Iles’ ‘Bus No. 36.’ This was based on the unpublished short story ‘A Little Black Hat’ and murder and theft take place on the upper deck of a London bus. The murderer is caught out by taking the victim’s hat rather than their own.’ However, let’s get back to the title in hand…
This book sees Flynn dive into the world of impossible crimes. On a horribly cold and wet foggy November night we follow a bus going from Esting to Raybourne. There are only five passengers on the bus, and they all remain on the lower deck. A man who has been getting the bus for 4-5 weeks gets on the bus and sticks to his routine of always sitting on the upper deck, regardless of the weather. The bus conductor expects him to get off the bus at Tower Square as usual, but he does not and upon investigation the conductor discovers that the man is dead. Worse than that he has been murdered, strangled to be precise. But no one went up to the upper deck before or after this passenger. So how as he killed? And for that matter, who is he?
Given that this is a Brian Flynn novel you can predict that immediate gains in the police investigation are to be regarded suspiciously, and one only has to wait for the author to turn everything on its head. A local rector is the link which brings Anthony Bathurst into the case and the rector narrates many of the chapters. The case also broadens out when Flynn begins to run a separate storyline involving a school mistress, a missing father and a big inheritance. The reader can only eagerly wait, (and read at a rapid rate of knots), to find out how everything fits together.
Flynn begins with an enticing opening sentence, which sets the scene:
‘It was a cold, wet and unutterably cheerless night in mid-November – a night when the mordant dog of Lear’s enemy would have found shelter beside the blind king’s fire.’
And the remainder of the first chapter is equally strong and poses a tantalising problem for the reader to solve. Flynn, as usual, is pretty generous when it comes to giving the reader clues, though we are not privy as such to Bathurst’s interpretations of them. In keeping with other reads by Flynn I had the odd face palm moment, or two, when I realised I had overlooked something quite obvious. Flynn is also very adept at anticipating the solutions the reader is likely to come up with, and of course gleefully explodes them. This happened to one of my earlier theories, though I was quite chuffed that my second attempt hit much nearer the mark, in terms of how the killing on the bus was achieved.
This is not the first story to use a vicar-type character to narrate a story. In the same year this book was published we also had Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and two years later we would have Gladys Mitchell’s The Saltmarsh Murders. Initially I was not very taken with the narration style of the rector in Murder En Route, finding it at times a bit ponderous, however as the plot unfolds I found he grew on me. Furthermore, for those who love a good cliff hanger, Flynn has plenty of these in store, making it so tempting to read just one more chapter, to find out what happens next…