REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


BRIAN FLYNN – The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye. Anthony Bathurst #3, Hamilton, UK, hardcover, 1928. Macrae-Smith, US, hardcover, 1930. Dean Street Press, trade paperback, October 2019.

   “Why have you no business to be here, Mr. X?” she queried softly.

   He shook his head. Then the Spirit of Audacity and Adventure caught him and held him securely captive. “One day — perhaps, I’ll tell you,” he declared, “till then, you must possess your soul in patience.”

   Let me be clear from the beginning: you won’t have to worry about being caught short by Audacity and Adventure in this book, though if you plan to wade through it possessing your soul in patience is a good idea, indeed it may be your only hope.

   The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye is the third adventure of amateur sleuth Anthony Lotherington Bathurst, whose literary career managed to encompass thirty two volumes of prose, much like that above, between 1927 and 1947 ending in a book Barzun and Taylor called “tripe”.

   Steve Barge, who writes a fine historical and appreciative introduction to this volume discussing Bathurst seems surprised that Brian Flynn, his creator, was never embraced by the Detection Club or the Crime Writers, but frankly only a paragraph or so in it is pretty clear why. Flynn deserves his own volume of Bill Pronzini’s alternative classics (Gun in Cheek, Son of Gun in Cheek).

   That said, his books are fair play mysteries, it’s just there isn’t much at stake in these games. As for Bathurst, having noted that his prospective client writes with a Germanic hand, Bathurst indulges in a very un-Holmesian bit of theorizing: “possibly a German professor who has mislaid his science notebook containing the recipe for diamond-making. That would account for the heavy demands to be made upon my powers of discretion!“. If Holmes indulged in such flights of fancy, Watson spared us them.

   Unlucky for us that has nothing to do with the plot at hand.

   Bathurst is a bit of a cipher. We are told he is attractive, know his parents are Irish, know he is a fine example of the concept of “Mens Sana” (perfection of mind and body, I take it rejected by Nero Wolfe and Gideon Fell), and pretty much sexless.

   Reading about this rather bland superman can make you mourn for the annoyances of Philo Vance or the touchy personality of Roger Sherringham. Flynn talks a better Holmes imitation than he delivers. At least Sapper’s Ronald Standish actually steals some of Holmes brilliant moments of reasoning (along with actual plots).

   Aside from such sterling example of prose as that passage above we have Flynn and Bathurst’s seeming inability to use simple words when there is an obscure one to be found in the dictionary. Here is Mr. Bathurst having breakfast in his rooms at the Hotel Florizel (points to anyone who catches the reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s own sleuth).

   Anthony Bathurst propped the letter against the side of the matutinal coffee-pot.

   I grant I can imagine Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion blathering something to Bunter or Lugg along the lines of, “The matutinal coffee-pot is required this morning …” but for the life of me I can’t imagine Sayers or Allingham using the word as their own without satirical point, and this is only the beginning for our boy Anthony, who shows an equal attraction for his creator’s collections of great quotes, which are dropped like bombshells along the difficult path to a solution.

   Despite or because of the nod to Holmes, the book opens well, with a grand ball where the Mr. X from above meets an attractive young lady, Sheila Delaney. A year later Mr. Bathurst at his “matuinal coffee pot” receives a client, none other than the Crown Prince of Clorania (Flynn’s fails pretty utterly at the naming of names business of fictioneering, Clorania is among the worst Ruritanian mythical kingdom names one can imagine, but then Graustark was taken) who is being, like his Bohemian cousin in Conan Doyle, blackmailed over an “affaire” with a young woman who he met at the Hunt Ball at Westhampton a year earlier where Mr. X and Sheila Delaney were so entranced with each other.

   But Mr. Bathurst can’t even begin his investigation until Inspector Richard “Dandy Dick” Bannister (one of several Yard men Bathurst collaborates with over the years), one of “the Big Six at the Yard”, on holiday in Seabourne is called in about the murder of a young woman by prussic acid in a dentist’s chair, a Miss Daphne Carruthers, and Bathurst receives a desperate cable from his client to come to Seabourne as Miss Daphne Carruthers is the young woman the Prince had his “affaire” with.

   “Strange Tragedy at Seabourne. Young Lady Murdered in Dentist’s Chair.”

   Not a headline you see every day.

   Further complicating things when Bathurst arrives is the fact Miss Daphne Carruthers is still alive, and the young dead woman unknown.

   Not that the average reader needs a lot to make a guess at who the young lady is. “we are in very deep waters, Sir Matthew! ____ _____ has been the victim of one of the most cunning and cold-blooded crimes of the century and it’s going to take me all my time to bring her assassin to justice.”

   Flynn is just off the mark, not quite up to par, neither good enough nor bad enough to really make the effort worthwhile (The “Daily Bugle” continued its bugling.). Flynn falls into the category of British mystery fiction of the Golden Age that was at its very best gold leaf, and at its worst cheap gold paint. In a career that ran to 1947, Flynn never got better, in fact he got worse, because Peacock is probably the best book he wrote.

   Granted Flynn has some talent for interesting mystery set ups, just no delivery, though this one does contain a clever bit of misdirection that is without question the reason it is the best regarded of Flynn’s books. He seems to have admired Christie and tried to plot in her class. The ambition is greater than the delivery, though once in a while he is diverting in the right mood.

   The detection proceeds divided between Banninster and Bathurst, but the former is no real improvement being almost as long winded as Bathurst as demonstrated by his description of his method.

   “Apply the maximum of the one to the maximum of the other; and when you get the combined maxima judiciously concentrated upon the problem in hand, they should eventually yield a minimum of trouble.”

   Huh, seems the proper response to that, though it does have something of a Monty Pythonesque logic to it.

   Bathurst himself happily reassures us about the case:

   “There now remains,” he said to himself, half-humorously, “the Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye! And how far is it connected with___________’s blackmailing of the Crown Prince? Connected and yet not connected. A most interesting and intricate case,” remarked Mr. Bathurst. “But nevertheless rapidly approaching a solution.”

   I grant Sherlock Holmes was sometimes hard up for an intelligent conversation with poor old Watson, but he never seems to have talked to himself. I’d also point out nothing really happens rapidly in a Bathurst novel.

   In fairness there are some bright moments like this from Sir Matthew Fulgarney.

   “Sit down then and say what you have to say. Please don’t beat about the bush. I hate to have to listen to a farrago of words — two-thirds of which are usually entirely — er — redundant — er — tautological — er — er unnecessary.” He blew his nose fiercely — intending it no doubt as an imposing battery of support.<{>

   More of that would have been welcome though they skate perilously close to self parody, and followed by a phrase too far: “He wheezed hilariously.”

   Several of the Bathurst novels are available at reasonable prices in ebook form, and for fans of the genre they are worth to toe dip to see how you feel about them. In the right mood you might find them more fun than I do, certainly if you approach without my past encounters and preconceptions of Flynn and Bathurst..

   All said and done, Bathurst out-waits the killer (The golden sunshine of July passed into the mellower maturity of August. August in its turn yielded place to the quieter beauty of September and russet-brown October reigned at due season in the latter’s stead.) who makes the mistake he was predicting and the law pounces, a minor improvement over a books worth of plodding (It did not take an overwhelming supply of intelligence to see that the trouble was coming from the Westhamptonshire neighbourhood), and Bathurst receives the praise for a job well done, which is more than can be said for Flynn.

   Approach with caution: Flynn has a typewriter and isn’t afraid to use it as a blunt instument.