A dark and stormy mid-November night and the 8:33 bus was making the final run of the night from Estings to Raybourne. Nobody in their right mind would be on the open top deck, but rain or shine, one passenger has always chosen to ride upstairs, and that night was no exception. When the bus comes to the passenger’s usual stop, he does not come downstairs. Whitehead, the conductor, braves the rain to see what’s wrong, only for the passenger to topple from their seat – dead.
Whitehead and the passengers had the stairs to the top deck in full view for the entirety of the journey. Nobody went up or came down the stairs. So how exactly was the passenger – whoever he may be – strangled?
This is the eighth Anthony Bathurst mystery from Brian Flynn – you can find my full list of reviews here. At this point in the series, Bathurst has something of a reputation for solving cases – apparently the police at the time had no qualms about letting the newspapers know that a gifted amateur had solved a tricky case for them, as people seem to recognise his name as a crime-solver – one character is referred to as having read on or two of Bathurst’s case while at Oxford. He gets involved in the case when he pops into a church, attracted by the vicar’s organ practice, and after indulging in a customary bout of showing how clever he is – naming the hymns from the numbers on the board, despite not being a churchgoer – he becomes good friends with the good Reverend Parry-Probyn. It follows that he is friends with the medical examiner on the murder case, and, along with Michael, the Reverend’s son, being a murder mystery fan, this leads to Bathurst joining the investigation.
Inspector Curgenven – Andrew MacMorran, Bathurst’s regular sparring partner in the later books still hasn’t arrived on the scene yet, despite his name-check in The Murders Near Mapelton – does at least attempt to put Bathurst in his place in the initial interrogations, but soon, Bathurst is running the show, building up a small band of investigators to help with his enquiries. The police are soon at Bathurst’s beck and call, as he sets about working out who the victim was, who killed them and how the murder was committed. I have to say that why the crime was committed that way is somewhat glossed over. A rationale is given, but there must have been easier ways to achieve the desired goal that wouldn’t have attracted the attention of Anthony Lotherington Bathurst.
Is this the only murder on a bus in the Golden Age? Obviously trains occur all the time – Dame Agatha used them in Murder On The Orient Express, The Mystery Of The Blue Train and 4:50 From Paddington, John Rhode uses them as both locations for murder – Death On The Boat-Train and Death In The Tunnel – and as murder weapons – Tragedy On The Line and Dead On The Track – and there are many more examples. But the old-fashioned train, with its separate compartments, lends itself to cunning murders. Other forms of transport are rarer, as the writer needs to find a way to kill without anyone noticing. The only example that I can think of where an aeroplane is used is Death In The Clouds, but they weren’t that common in the Golden Age era. The closest I can think of to a bus murder is The Tragedy Of X by Ellery Queen/Barnaby Ross, where a man is murdered on a crowded tram, using the fact that it is so crowded to have a number of people who could have been close enough to him. But obviously this is the exact opposite – nobody could have approached the victim!
It is worth mentioning the slightly odd narrative structure of this tale. For the second time, following The Billiard Room Mystery, Flynn employ a narrator, the aforementioned Reverend, but after the first few chapters, it becomes a bit odd. There are some chapters, setting up some relevant events for the reader ahead of Bathurst discovering them, that are presented away in third person, which is fair enough – the opening few chapters are the same – but there are some narrated chapters that start “I wasn’t there, but Michael told me about it”. It looks a bit like that Flynn had the idea of writing it from the vicar’s point of view but then realised that it didn’t make sense for him to be there for some essential scenes. It’s not a criticism, per se, just a bit odd.
Overall, this is a nicely complex yet clear plot, with some good twists and turns, with the overall picture being an imaginative one. The reader may guess some parts of it, but there are clues there as to what’s going on, and it’s written with Flynn’s light touch making it, as ever, a very enjoyable read, from the opening sections on the bus to the exciting and somewhat unlikely finale. Yes, some characters suffer from the mystery-novel syndrome of not doing the obvious thing due to it making a better story – Flynn is hardly alone in committing this sin – but this is a clever and fun read. Who could ask for more?
Availability: Ha. Good luck. It did get a paperback reprint in the “John Long Four-Square Thrillers” range but so did about four other Flynn titles and I’ve not seen those either. There was also a US release, like some of the first twenty-ish titles, but the only copies I’ve seen have astronomical postage – one was £20 but with an additional £30+ postage…
Extra Review: Yes, there is another review of this book on the internet. Check out John Norris’ review on Pretty Sinister Books (which is where I nabbed the image of the US version from – hope that’s OK, John). I love the caption – “Anthony Bathurst Solves Another Murder En Route”. I don’t recall him ever solving a Murder En Route before…
Just The Facts, Ma’am: HOW – Death On Wheels