The Toy Lamb (1956) by Brian Flynn

Have you ever heard of a piscina? It’s part of a church providing a bowl where the priest can dispose of the holy water used during communion. A double piscina also has a bowl for the priest to wash their hands. Well, apparently in five churches in England, there are rare triple piscinas. But after there are written about in a ground-breaking article in the Lectern, it seems that someone has decided that five triple piscinas are five too many.

As the piscinas are defaced one by one, Anthony Bathurst is called in, predicting that the vandalism is going to end in murder. But as he arrives at the final church, he is too late – a man called Gilbert Hallam lies dead inside, strangled. But who is Hallam? What connection does he have to the vandalism? And why did someone leave a toy lamb in the first piscina?

A late Brian Flynn title, his propreantepenultimate (fifth from last) title, and to be honest, there’s a lot of things I could say about this one. Because structurally, there are a few problems.

  • Bathurst’s psychic abilities – it’s never explained how he knows that the vandalism will end in murder. And nobody ever questions it. I know he’s solved fifty-odd murders by now, but even so…
  • The reason for the vandalism – it’s weak, and Bathurst calls it almost immediately. Given the title of the book comes from the toy lamb left in the first piscina, you’d think that aspect of the tale would be more important.
  • The murderer isn’t remotely clued. Basically Bathurst works out a profile of them, spots the only person he’s met who fits the profile and then gets a confession.
  • A lot of the narrative is fairly irrelevant as Bathurst investigates Hallam’s life to try and find a motive for his murder. As Hallam has led a mostly blame-free life, this involves a lot of dead ends until Bathurst finds something to give him a lead.

But despite that, it’s an entertaining read. I’ve always praised Flynn’s prose style, with what could have been a dull tale enlivened by Bathurst and his turns of phrase. The villain is a bit guessable, although guessing who they are is basically what Bathurst does. There’s a nice ending but really too much of the solution – well, the motive really – is told to us, rather than letting us work it out.

So, far from a perfect classic mystery, and far from Flynn’s best, but still a fun read.

Availability: You are joking? No? Well, there’s a copy on Abebooks for under thirty quid, but that’s only for the Flynn completists – if there is more than one of us. And I’ve already got it…

Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHAT – An animal in the title

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