Today I am returning to the work of Brian Flynn, who is one of the authors under discussion at the online Bodies from the Library conference next month.
‘Anthony Bathurst reaches Swallowcliffe Hall, summoned by Constance Whittaker, to protect her husband, Major Whittaker, from an unnamed threat. Bathurst enlists his friend Peter Daventry, a crack shot and good in a fight.
One of the household suddenly drops dead, despite no one being anywhere near him. When poison is revealed to be the method of execution, Bathurst finds himself asking how someone can poison from a distance, or whether there is quite another solution to this fiendish mystery . . .’
The Puzzle Doctor, who writes the introductions for the Dean Street Press Flynn reprints, is right in saying that this book may surprise readers who have sampled other examples of Flynn’s work. This is an impossible crime mystery, yet I would say greater emphasis is laid upon the adventure and thrills Anthony Bathurst lands himself in.
This begins from the very first page when Bathurst’s journey to his client’s home is almost Buchan-esque, flitting on and off modes of transport to lose his trackers, as well as a spot of disguise. Today’s read, to me at any rate, comes across as a mystery which harks back to late 19th century in style, when detective fiction was a much more fluid genre and had not become quite so distinct from its genre cousin of the adventure story and its genre sibling in the thriller. This is perhaps not so surprising given the strong nods Flynn makes towards the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes’ cases were full of adventure also and he too had to contend with criminous and violent gangs on behalf of his clients, who are threatened by people from their past. One character even alludes to Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1890), when he refers to their four pursuers as the ‘signs of four.’ Then there is Bathurst himself who makes remarks such as: ‘It is fatal to yield to the temptation of theorising without sufficient data.’ Moreover, Bathurst also like Holmes disappears from the scene for the while, before making a triumphant reappearance at the end.
I don’t think it would be too outrageous to say that this book also chimes in with the Sexton Blake stories, where a good aim and a right hook were as indispensable as little grey cells. I was reminded of this style of writing when the Major’s country home becomes under siege and when the attackers begin to apply torture to reluctant questionees. Due to these adventure and thriller components which set off and direct the plot, I think the initial discovery of the principal death is overshadowed. For quite a significant proportion of the narrative Bathurst is quite fallible, invariably thinking of something he should have done, too late to then do it successfully.
I don’t think this is a book to be read for the impossible crime as we only get confirmation of the exact murder method 58 pages from the end of the book. I am not sure how much you can figure out for yourself in this mystery, as equally like the Holmes’ novels, the solution to this case requires a significant backstory and there is no strong cluing to point towards how the poison was transmitted. I also found the language a bit more stilted than in some of the other books by Flynn that I have read.
The Puzzle Doctor, Tomcat and Nick have also reviewed this title and their enthusiasm for this book demonstrates how it is to be enjoyed for the thrill of the ride it takes you on. I think perhaps I must have got into the wrong queue…