Brian Flynn. I can honestly say this is a name I had never heard of until very recently. Well, certainly not in a GAD context. I have a feeling I may have been in a meeting once with a bloke of the same name – but definitely not the creator of sleuth Anthony Bathurst!
In rekindling my interest in detective fiction over the last few months I had encountered Flynn mainly as a resurrected author enthused over by several bloggers, particularly the extremely readable and highly knowledgeable Puzzle Doctor. I also noticed the really striking cover artwork on the covers of his books reissued by DSP: you can experience their delights laid out beautifully on the aforementioned website. A very pleasing GAD-era look has been employed and it gives this reissued set an extremely distinctive brand. I must admit I find the covers of GAD books a fascinating area of study if its own. Sometimes, of course, this can be a rather distracting factor as you should never judge a book by the cover. And it works both ways. Think how many incredible delights have been contained within the wrapper of a plain green classic penguin. So..the reader is warned… actually, yes – my copy of The Reader is Warned is just so but that’s a different story, literally. Boom, boom!🙂 [Well……What a surreal experience – cracking a joke in written form that (if I’m lucky) approximately 3 people will read. And going back to correct the typos too. Quite novel, in more ways than one! No — stop it…. OK….I really do digress!]
I have to say that holding the physical book (yes – a real, tangible item) was a delight. Whilst you can tell it is independently published, it was pleasing to the eye and to the touch, the font size was perfect and just the right length. So I really hoped this book was going to live up to the cover and its trappings.
This is a novel with a fairly energetic start and the plot gets moving swiftly (always a big plus for me – no messing around). We have 3 isolated happenings: a mysterious stranger, Mr X, introduced to a young lady at a hunt ball, our hero sleuth presented with a case of blackmail by a royal personage who wishes to remain anonymous (sound familiar at all? There’s even a photo involved!) and the death of a girl in a dentist chair, injected with cyanide. Of course, this is GAD detection so everything is clearly going to be connected. What follows is a fast paced romp of detection with quite a large list of characters, connections from the past (yet another shade of Conan Doyle, bearing a few surface similarities to The Sign of Four) and – at the centre – detection work by two very different characters, our amateur genius Mr Anthony Bathurst and lauded Scotland Yard “soon to retire and wanting to go out on a high” legend, Chief Inspector Bannister. Both are fairly well drawn despite the limitations of the page count and the competition with a great deal of plot and a plethora of minor characters. The interaction between amateur and professional is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, aside from the mystery itself, and subtly different to other pairings such as Poirot and Japp etc. Bannister is highly confident, arrogant and brusque. “Full of himself”, he has a track record which he constantly quotes and never doubts that he will arrive at the solution. His approach is old school and based on interviewing and chasing leads and clues. Bathurst is equally confident but has a much more flexible, subtle style. At the outset my expectation was that there would be half a novel of thinly-veiled needle between the two followed by grudging acceptance and respect building gradually, concluding with Bathurst solving the mystery but Bannister getting the official credit. In the event, the two co-operate from the start and the interplay is nicely written. It seems to me that Bathurst, with his deft touch, realises that he cannot compete with the towering ego of Bannister so he works with it and, in fact, massages it occasionally. This gets the job done and enables each of them to work on aspects of the case that they are suited do. There are certainly plenty of pleasant surprises in this relationship.
The story fairly zips along. It seems to me to have something of the PG Wodehouse about it but it never gets to – what might be termed – comedy. Most of the characters have a good degree of colour and a few are quite larger-than-life such as the somewhat self-important Bank Manager Mr E Kingsley Stark and the bookie Mr Jacob Morley, although unfortunately he suffers from some unpleasant GAD-era stereotyping. His sales pitch to the police for his excellent value turf accountancy services is one of a number of very amusingly written parts of the novel.
Around half way through the read I looked again at the excellent cover and wondered what on earth the “peacock’s eye” had to do with the plot as there had been no mention of it! Fortunately it soon appeared (it is a gemstone) and its importance in the plot became clear. Mind you, its overall role does make me think that a title of “The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye Amongst Other Things” would have been more accurate!
In the closing stages it feels as thought we are flitting between detection and thriller/adventure styles as Bannister and his assistant chase round in circular fashion after some stolen bank notes that appear to have been passed from one suspect to another. Is this significant: is someone lying? Everything culminates with a trip across to the continent and a denouement that is justly lauded. Flynn’s misdirection of the reader is excellent. Although the explanation in the conclusion is surprisingly brief it does highlight all the clues that the reader really should have seen. Some, however, fall into the “never in a month of Sundays would I have seen that” category – which is fine of course! That said, I actually guessed the who, not because of the clues but purely on a gut feel level. I – like many – fall into the “try to work all it out but am most pleased when I am completely wrong” camp. Hence, getting the who correct was a slight disappointment; however, and fortunately, I was suitably all at sea on the how and why front.
So, overall, an enjoyable book, pleasant to read and very amusing in places. I can see why there has been so much effort in recent years to get Flynn back in print and I will certainly be sampling more of his oeuvre in the future. It really does amaze me that writing of such quality is not widely available. I guess you can’t keep everything in print but novels such as this are head and shoulders above of a lot of stuff that has never been out of print. But then, in a world where you can’t get a copy of Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel for less than £75 second hand and where only some of John Dickson Carr’s output is on Kindle format it really should not be too surprising!
How about an alternative theory? Maybe the name Brian Flynn just wasn’t distinctive enough for a GAD author and he got mixed up with other Brian Flynns. Maybe he should have done an Ellery Queen and called himself Anthony Bathurst? Now there’s an idea..