Meet Julius Maitland, a millionaire horse trainer whose one desire is to win the Derby, the great flat race of racing season, and his horse Red Ringan is in with a fantastic chance. Unfortunately, so is his wife’s horse Princess Alicia. Summoned away to South Africa, his country of birth, the day before the race, his wife, Ida, decides to enter Princess Alicia anyway. In a neck and neck finish, Red Ringan takes the race with Princess Alicia in second.
In a national sensation, Red Ringan is disqualified. Why? Because her owner was dead when the race was run! A telephone call the day after the race summons the police to a house in the town of Friningham where Maitland’s murdered body is found – but he has been dead for at least two days. When Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police is asked to investigate, he immediately summons his friend Anthony Bathurst. But can Bathurst make sense of the case – or even the rules of horse racing?
Back to the early days of Brian Flynn’s output – and in case you are new to the blog and are thinking Brian Who?, then let me direct you to this page. The Five Red Fingers was his fifth book, following the flawed-but-enjoyable The Billiard Room Mystery, the only-read-in-abridged form The Case Of The Black Twenty-Two and the genuine long-lost classics The Mystery Of The Peacock’s Eye and The Murders Near Mapleton. I’ve been putting this one off for a while, reading some of his later output first, as I figured I’d leave a near-guaranteed classic to near the end of my Flynn researches (well, until I find more books – I’ve still got a few more to go thankfully).
And, as you may have guessed, this isn’t anywhere near the quality of the preceding two titles (or indeed Invisible Death, the title that follows it). Boo.
It’s clear that Flynn loved sport, in particular cricket and horse racing, never more so in the opening sixty pages of this one – the pre-murder bit – where we get a year in the life of the Maitlands’ stable as they build up to the Derby. It’s a bit technical – Flynn never bothers to really explain what a Calcutta auction is, which is fairly important to the plot – and I wonder how much of this was common knowledge back in the day. It reminds me of the opening of Tragedy at Trinket, a non-Bathurst (I think) title that I started and put down due to a similar amount of technicality about cricket. Thankfully, once Maitland is murdered, this stuff recedes into the background and becomes clearly the less it is mentioned, although there are a couple of choice cricket metaphors – “he’s as depressing as a Louis Hall playing against Lancashire on an August Bank Holiday” apparently. This, by the way, seems to be an odd phrase as Louis Hall, who was a fairly boring player apparently, died in 1915!
Luckily once Bathurst shows up, things become much more readable and entertaining for the non-horse enthusiast. I love how the first response of the Commissioner of Scotland Yard is to immediately enlist an amateur who’s helped him twice before (three of the four preceding cases get a spoiler-free mention, something that I’ve noticed is common in Flynn’s work) rather than find anyone with any crime solving talent that actually works for him. Even Japp would ask Poirot for help once the case became complicated, but here, it’s more of the case being important so Sir Austin Kemble decides immediately that the police probably can’t handle it.
Bathurst gets the usual descriptions – “a perfectly wonderful detective… who would worm secrets from the Sphinx” and physically is “altogether pleasing” but we also get to see a fair bit of Kemble in this one, as he tags along as Bathurst’s Watson – obviously something the Commissioner of Police would do – and he’s generally presented as a decent sort of chap, getting on a bit (he’s “becoming conscious of Anno Domini” – at least I think that’s what he means) and has a tendency to indulge in long reminiscences that more than one character chooses to actively ignore or interrupt. And he thinks that a good breakfast involves “grape-fruit, a nice sole, bacon and eggs, and a kidney if you’d like it”. Presumably with some antacid as well. He’s the butt of some cheeky comments too – in a rather lovely chapter where Bathurst is interviewing a young girl about a mysterious man, she describes him as “much better looking than the man what’s with you now”. Poor old Kemble, no wonder he soon steps into the background for Inspector MacMorran to take the insults.
That’s a rather lovely chapter that’s worth mentioning, to be honest, as Bathurst negotiates a price for information with the girl, Nellie, so that she can complete her collection of cigarette cards. When her info proves to be useful, a full fifty pages later, there’s an offhand comment that she has completed her collection. Which I found rather charming.
That’s the thing I find about Flynn’s writing. It’s all fairly fun and charming, even when the mystery is a bit of a let-down – and it is here, to be honest. The idea of a phone call from a murder victim two days after he died has a simple solution, so simple you wonder why the villain bothered with it, and Bathurst displays what can only be described as psychic powers to reveal what happened. To be fair, his line of deduction is laid out in the final chapter and it does make some sense, but it requires so many leaps in logic that it beggars belief. And there is an element of one person’s involvement in the crime being revealed by a handy confession… Bathurst admits that he wasn’t 100% sure which person did this bit, so it’s a good job they had a conscience.
Oh, the title’s worth a mention too. Late in the day, Bathurst finds a bloody hand-print and decides to name the case after it. Lord know why he thought this was the most important bit of the case – why not The Ghost’s Telephone Call? Surely that bit (despite the obvious answer) is better than the bloody hand-print?
So, not a complete loss – it was a fun read – but nowhere near his best work. Not One To Break The Bank For (although this is a title that was actually re-issued at one point unlike some so you might get lucky…)
Oh, before we go though. My edition is a 1929 first edition without dustjacket, but it has the most fascinating attachements, pictured below:
These are the front and back flaps of what I presume was a dust jacket but they seem awfully specific – notably all advertising businesses mostly in the same road in Bournemouth. Two of the addresses still exist, but with no sign of the mentioned business. But my question – what are these? They can’t be from the original dustjacket, surely. The book has a stamp from Richmond Park Library, in the same town, but also apparently defunct – the address no longer exists. So did the library commission these? The address of the printers in Clapham no longer exists either…