“Let me admit, first of all, that I am a perfectly rotten hand at telling a story.”
Truer words have never been stated. Dr. Michael Bannerman, the narrator of Brian Flynn’s 11th (or is it 12th) Anthony Bathurst myustery, The Edge of Terror, is a terrible narrator. He uses twelve words where one would suffice. He out Philo’s Mr. Vance himself in his sharing of useless boys’ school information. And his syntax is abominable:
“Anthony Bathurst rubbed his hands and the grey eyes of him now reflected a more adequate satisfaction.”
Who talks like that?
I’m not an unreasonable reader. I’m perfectly interested in information that has nothing to do with the mystery plot, per se, such as where a person lives or what he likes to eat. Here is Dr. Bannerman describing his dinner:
“When I blew downstairs again, newly tubbed and freshly razored, Mrs. Ramage’s efforts on my behalf, from the cuisine, took on an added commendableness. The dear old soul had a most positive and uncanny flair for doing the right thing. She had cut out the soup and the joint, and had served me up the most delicious lobster salad. It would have gratified the Angelic host and brought tears of joy to the eyes of Cherubim and Seraphim. Shellfish has always been a weakness of mine and I never remember an occasion when a lobster has tasted better – or even as well. How damnably lucky I was, I argued to myself, to have got hold of a housekeeper of the Ramage calibre. Twenty minutes later the door opened and she brought me in one of her famous loganberry soufflés. Nobody – since the asp bit Cleopatra and Charmian – ever made a better soufflé than the Ramage. A little less of cornflour and a little more of cream were, I think, her two especial secrets.”
Dr. Bannerman is a twit. A person picking up his first Brian Flynn mystery (as I happen to be doing on this occasion) could almost applaud the author for his ability to conjure up such an overly pendantic, witless wonder. But then Andthony Lancelot Bathurst, the great sleuth himself, shows up early on to investigate a murder in the village of Great Steeping, and he speaks exactly the way Bannerman writes. It’s love at first sight, and the quickly inseparable pair of gentlemen flirt with each other while examining crime scenes, whisper secrets, rush home for a furtive morning cocktail, (the suggestion has been made – by Flynn’s biggest fan – that Bannerman might be a lush) and share confidences about a local neighbor who seems to be the woman who got away from both of them.
The question I kept asking myself as I slogged through the first few chapters of Edge was: is it the characters, or is this Brian Flynn? Is this the reason the man who, from 1927 to 1958, wrote fifty-four mystery novels was completely forgotten until a year or so ago? And I thought to myself, oh Lord! what a fix have I gotten myself into? For, you see, The Edge of Terror is this month’s title for my monthly book club. It is part of the second set of Flynn novels that was pushed into publication through the efforts of the Puzzle Doctor, one of our most preeminent bloggers (at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel), and a dyed in the wool Flynnhead. PD has gone to no little effort locating these books and writing the introductions to the reissues by Dean Street Press, and he will tell you that it took more effort than usual to locate this title.
When the Flynn-aissance began, I tried joining in by dropping two titles onto my iPad. I had heard from many that The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and The Murders Near Mapleton were two of the best; in fact, I was going crazy reading review after review of Peacock’s Eye and hearing people marvel at its stunning shock ending, so I thought I had better start with that one before it was ruined for me. I got a third of the way through, to the point where a body had been discovered in a dentist’s chair through . . . and stopped when I realized I didn’t care. I didn’t care who she was or what had happened to her. I couldn’t stop obsessing about why any right-minded author would invent a country and name it Clorania. I confessed my frustrations to the Doctor, and I must say he was a real gentleman about it. He said that some people didn’t get on with that title. He recommended I try The Murders Near Mapleton.
Meanwhile, our book club selected The Edge of Terror, and I thought to myself, here’s your chance to tackle Brian Flynn and discuss him with his greatest living fan. Hey, it’s a village mystery about a serial killer! You liked Murder Is Easy! You liked Death Walks in Eastrepps! You’ve got Max Murray’s The Voice of the Corpse lined up for a joyful read sometime in 2026! What could go wrong here? Get an early start. Savor the thing and be prepared for a stimulating conversation, don’t ya know, eh wot?!?
Oh, and I do mean an actual conversation. And that is my dilemma. For, you see, the Puzzle Doctor is a member of my book club.
And so I buckled down and tried to get past my objections. Even PD said that Bannerman behaves like an ass at the start. I took that to mean that the plot would take hold later on, and all my problems with this author and these characters would be moot.
So I ignored the syntax:
There was a gleam in the grey eyes of him.
I ignored the weird speech pattern that Flynn gives to the German barber as he speaks about his missing assistant:
“Otto Kreutz has not been since yesterday – the lunchtime it was. He go to his lunch at the usual time but come back here he do not. I say to myself, he ill; he sick; he have himself hurt; he will in the morning come. But no, he has not been here at all. You gentlemen can it see.”
I ignored the descriptions of characters like the local rich merchant:
“Mr. Montague Corbett entered the room. He was a short, heavyset man, who carried himself in a manner that suggested he was used to having his way. At this moment, he was full of nervous excitement.”
If you don’t have a problem with the above description of Mr. Corbett, that’s because I wrote it. I was trying to approximate the style of Agatha Christie, a writer who is constantly maligned for her spare descriptive style yet managed to do all right by herself. How I wanted to sob in Mrs. Christie’s arms. How I wish that she had described Mr. Corbett, for the Flynn/Bannerman description runs three or more pages and reveals . . . exactly what I’ve written above.
Halfway through the book, we’re three murders in, and Bathurst and Bannerman are shacked up and shaving together; sadly, I can’t even enjoy the homoerotic undertones of their relationship because the prose hasn’t changed, the syntax hasn’t changed, another twit named Jack Tabernacle has emerged, speaking in exactly the same way and equally enamoured of Bannerman and Bathurst. Nothing has changed, and nothing is really going on.
You can tell that Flynn was a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle from the way he has Bathurst sniff upon the ground in search of clues, doing a clever trick to show who stepped on a piece of candy in a movie theatre or where a letter with a penciled address ended up, and going on and on (and on and on AND ON) about a mysterious word that, when revealed, turns out to be a major term in the Holmesian canon. (I recognize that this was an early mystery, but was it the first one where anonymous letters are made with letters cut out of newspapers? This fact seemed to thrill everyone.) Bathurst even refers to The Great Detective in his meandering talks to his latest Watson:
“On one occasion, my dear Bannerman, the immortal Holmes threated to tell the world the story of the politician, the lighthouse-keeper and the trained cormorant. An intriguing triangle, don’t you think? Much more so than the comparative prosaic triangle that consists of the cinema attendant, the German hairdresser and the pink chocolate cream. My luck, you see, compared with the master’s . . . “
My luck, as well. I’ve read the Canon, and I don’t recall the banter between Holmes and Watson evincing such constant floridity to such little effect nor any tale set up where less and less happens as we amble to the climax. There’s an attempt to prevent a possible fourth murder, a discussion on the mental acuity and relative sanity of the killer, and . . . some more talk. As I skimmed along, I thought of other places I’d like to be and in other company. I missed the jovial harrumphing of Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale and rejoiced that one day soon I would be diving into Death in Five Boxes. I blessed my friend JJ for introducing me to some fine modern authors of crime stories for young people and knew that I had a date with a small boy and his uncle on a train after this. Most of all, I missed Poirot – dear Poirot, who seemed positively terse when compared with this Flynn crew – and relished the fact that I would be re-reading Cards on the Table next week for an upcoming podcast taping at The Invisible Event.
Most of all, as a new message from the killer arrives, sounding turgid enough to mark The Eagle yet another twit, as townspeople gather together to patrol the village in a fruitless effort to stop the killings (you fools, NOBODY can stop The Eagle except Bathurst!), as the next potential victim goes missing while another body takes its place, then another, as Bathurst pauses in his sleuthing to wax eloquent on the restorative powers of a grapefruit for breakfast . . . as all this was happening, I started to realize two things:
ONE: I had been pretty sure of the identity of the killer since page thirteen, and it appeared that Bathurst glommed onto the solution around page thirty, which means that my feelings that the rest of the book was basically a giant scam to catch the killer would be justified if I was correct.
I was correct.
This required no sleuthing on my part. As some of my friends have said, when you read a lot of these things, you acquire a certain feeling for certain tropes and certain characters and such. It seems to me that Brian Flynn, who started writing books because he felt he could do better than most of the authors he was reading, might have tried a different trope here; honestly, however, I think the guy had written himself into a corner.
TWO: I really like the Puzzle Doctor. He’s a fellow teacher and a fellow mystery lover, a very successful blogger and a man possessed of a dry wit that I enjoy. (He has an English accent, which is challenging, but none of us are perfect, y’all.) I feel genuinely terrible that my first full experience with Brian Flynn – someone he loves, someone he helped the world rediscover! – was worse than my half experience with him 18 months or so ago. It beat out any troubles I’ve had with Paul Halter (and, oh God, there have been many!) And yet . . . it wasn’t as bad as Leonard Gribble, was it? Maybe I should experiment more with Flynn. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut at Sunday’s Book Club, or, at least, tread softly. And after all, PD is a reasonable guy: it’s not likely I’m going to find an orange axe in my back just for having a difference of opinion. (It does offer some relief that we’re meeting on Zoom.)
My apologies to you other Flynn fans, and there are many, for my not being able to get on with him. Be gentle with me. I have it on good authority that the English translation of Halter’s Le toile de Pénélope (Penelope’s Web) is coming out in the near future. I promise I’ll be kind . . .