This is Flynn’s debut mystery novel, a country house murder mystery no less. The book is primarily narrated by Bill Cunningham, a Watson-like figure and he and his friend Anthony Bathurst are staying at Considine Manor, owned by Sir Charles, who every year holds a cricket week. Various others are invited, including Gerald Prescott. Yet early one morning that week, Bill is awakened by the screams of a maid crying, ‘Murder!’ He and the rest of the household race to the billiard room and surprise surprise, Gerald is found murdered; ‘strangled with his own shoelace,’ yet also ‘stabbed with an antique Venetian dagger.’ There are signs that Gerald had been outside, including footprints leading out of the billiard room window, but who had Gerald been going to meet late that night? Theft is soon suggested as a motive, which is seemingly substantiated when Lady Considine’s pearls have gone missing. Nevertheless, Anthony Bathurst, (who finally sees himself getting a chance to cut his amateur sleuthing teeth on a real-life case), and Scotland Yard Inspector Baddeley, are very much aware that they must sift the multitude of clues they have at their disposal. Which ones are genuine? And which are mere red herrings?
So how did Flynn do with his first go?
On the whole I would say he did quite well. His debut displays his flair for plotting, which would only go from strength to strength in his subsequent books. Intricate and often everyday details are revealed to hold great significance and Flynn provides the reader with many puzzling questions to answer about the crime scene. An area which I feel he improved on in later books is the matter of the subplot. In this book I think it is perhaps solved a little too easily, but this is a minor niggle.
Given the size of the cast of suspects we do not get to engage with many of them particularly deeply. Some leave the narrative quite early on. However, one area of characterisation which Flynn does well is the relationship between Bathurst and Baddeley. The dynamic between them is very entertaining and provides an enjoyable variation on the Holmes/Lestrade relationship set out by Doyle. They do not start out very chummy:
“You’re certain of what you just told us?” queried Anthony.
“How are you certain?”
“That’s my business, Mr. Bathurst. Try your hand at finding things out yourself.”
“Right-o!” Anthony accepted the challenge laughingly. “Shall we go fifty-fifty with our discoveries?”
“If it suits me.”
…but Baddeley plays very fairly with him and eventually sees how useful he can be:
“You seem to be able to extract all the information you require, Mr. Bathurst,” said Baddeley. “Much more successful than I am.” Anthony grinned. “Put it down to my irresistible charm of manner.”
Baddeley and Bathurst mostly work independently of each other, and in the main we spend the most time with Bathurst. The pair are reasonably good at sharing information with each other and because of this I think information about the investigation is well-staggered and not in such a way that you feel like it has been held back.
Unusually, for the period, the murder victim is not a hugely unlikeable person; no grim skeletons come out of his closet. Furthermore, there isn’t a deluge of motives for his death and those that arise are relatively passionate-less, which I found quite intriguing. The ultimate motive, whilst plausible, perhaps could have been better prepared for in text. However, the logistics of the crime and the evidence that points to the guilty party is well in evidence. I can’t talk about the more interesting elements of it as it would be a massive spoiler. But the Puzzle Doctor, who writes the introductions for Dean Street Press reprints, has also written an afterword to this reprinted title, which I found highly interesting and informative, providing a corrective nudge to the reader who is liable to have made an assumption based on the ending of the book. Oh, I would also like to add that I had a feeling about who the killer would be, and I was quite chuffed that I had picked the right person. Although, in fairness, I did for the main part completely forget about my hunch, so the ending was not quite as anticipated. I really don’t think I would ever make a very good amateur detective in real life…
Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)