Vernon House, home of Sir Eustace Vernon, and Christmas is in full swing. His nearest and dearest, and the great and the good of Mapleton, are in attendance… you can tell things didn’t go as planned. Before the night is out, Sir Eustace has disappeared and his butler, Purvis, lies dead, poisoned, with a threatening message inside a red bonbon in his pocket. Oh, and the butler seems to be missing one or two things that might be expected – it seems that Purvis was actually a woman, something that nobody seemed to be aware of.
Meanwhile, despite it being Christmas Eve night, police commissioner Sir Austin Kemble and sometime investigator Anthony Bathurst are out for a drive when they come across an abandoned car at a railway crossing. Looking around, they find a body that seems to have been hit by a train. The body of Sir Eustace Vernon, with two rather interesting properties. One, a bullet hole in the back of his head. Two, a red bonbon in his pocket with a threatening message in it…
The fourth Anthony Bathurst mystery, following The Billiard Room Mystery, The Case Of The Black Twenty Two and The Mystery Of The Peacock’s Eye, comes from 1929, the same year as the only other GA example of the wrong-gender-corpse that I’m aware of, namely Gladys Mitchell’s debut Speedy Death. There’s a Josephine Tey book from about twenty five years later, but other than that, nothing that I know of. Was there such a real-life murder in the twenties that inspired both books? I can’t believe that there was enough time for one author to pinch the idea from the other (and if that was the case, Mitchell must have pinched it given that Flynn cranked out two more books in the same year). But to be honest, it’s a pretty minimal part of the plot.
OK, it’s pretty clear by now that I’m a big fan of the long-lost Brian Flynn, author of approximately fifty mystery novels between 1927 and 1958, almost all featuring sleuth Anthony Bathurst, a character that Flynn seemed determined to keep somewhat nebulous. To establish what we learn about Bathurst in this book:
- He’s solved a few crimes before but doesn’t want to solve too many – “I get sick of a surfeit of cases. One every now and then does me very well”
- He went to Oxford University, in particular being a member of OUDS, the Drama Society
- He can be a little verbose on occasions, seemingly in this case when talking to the “working classes” – he even, for no particularly good reason, calls one Albert Fish “Alberto Poissonio”
- He’s good looking enough for a barmaid to give him the nickname “Angel Face”
- He drives a Crossley
- He doesn’t consider himself a gentleman
- He considers “your blasted cleverness is inhuman” to be quite a testimonial to his prowess
- He has some pretty negative views on marriage – to be specific would be a spoiler though…
And that’s it, apart from a tendency not to get on with local bobby Inspector Craig. At one point, Kemble mentions that if Bathurst wasn’t there, he would have called in Inspector MacMorran, the police inspector who will go on to be the long-running supporting sleuth in the series, but hasn’t, I don’t think, made an appearance to date. In common with the other books that I’ve read, there’s no real background to Bathurst, but he’s a charming lead, all the same, leading the reader down the path to the solution to the mystery – which I think is fairly clued, although some info comes quite late in the day.
It’s a complex tale but very readable – something I think is one of Flynn’s strengths. One of the highest complements that I can pay is that as the solution was slowly revealed, I put the book down between chapters to have a bit of a think about things. There is quite a lot to puzzle out here but it all ties together nicely at the end of the day, letting the reader work out bits and pieces – or not, as the case may be…
You could make a case that the investigation is a bit odd – there never seems to be any real curiosity about Purvis, the mysterious female butler, leaving the reader to have to guess their involvement in the big picture until it is revealed, almost as a matter of fact – so it’s best that you don’t think too hard about the reality of the situation, which is probably a good thing, as realism doesn’t really come close to this tale. Which is definitely not a criticism, just to be clear…
A quick diversion into the signs of the times from this one:
- The existence of such a thing as a village coffee-stall – the pre-cursor to Starbucks
- The use of the phrase “one pound currency notes” – what other sort of pound notes were there?
- The phrase “Na-poo!” which means “nothing doing, by the way”
- A pub with the glorious name of “The Cauliflower and Crumpet”
So, another piece of evidence in the case of why Brian Flynn should be reprinted as soon as possible. A well-crafted mystery that keeps the reader’s attention while sticking to the classic whodunit structure. Sure, it’s not in the same league as Dame Agatha, but it’s a damn sign finer than anything by Dame Ngaio. Fingers crossed it’ll be available at some point in the future…
For a second opinion – the first time I can say that for Flynn – do pop over to see what Curtis Evans had to say. But from me, at least, this is Highly Recommended.