BOOK REPORT #5: The Flynn Dilemma

“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 . . . 

27 thoughts on “BOOK REPORT #5: The Flynn Dilemma

  1. You have at least one ally on this point, sir. I’ve refrained (as far as I can recall) from commenting on any of the blogs praising Flynn’s work, because I didn’t want to spoil other people’s fun. But I found at least one stylistic infelicity on every page — nothing huge, if it were the only one I could shrug it off. But I found that I wanted to find a pencil and play editor, guiding sentences into a more helpful form, suggesting word substitutions that wouldn’t get in the reader’s way, trying to help characters talk like people. The books (the ones I read) showed good story invention, intriguing settings, most of the makings of a good mystery… but the actual line-by-line writing kept getting in the way, reminding me of my undergraduate students who are trying to write like fancy books they admire instead of finding their own simpler style. My loss, of course. I’ll keep trying.

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    1. That’s the thing! Over and over again, I heard that Flynn was clever, although he veered through sub-genres so drastically that you had to check in advance to see what kind of book (thriller, whodunnit, etc.) you were reading. Still, you and I have figured out that a good plot has to be matched with a writing style that is either also good or at least plain enough to not interfere with, or distract from, the plot.

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      1. This reminds me a bit of the late Dr Fell novels that John Dickson Carr produced (starting with The Dead Man’s Knock). The stories actually contain some really good stuff, but my enjoyment is stifled by:
        1. 100% of the dialogue is characters shouting at each other. Nobody simply talks. I imagine Carr felt that he was amping up the drama, but come on man, not every exchange has to be an argument!
        2. Instead of the narrator describing what is happening, the characters do it through their dialogue in the most unnatural way: “Come from where you are seated by the window and stand where I am, by the desk. Yes, that’s it. Seat yourself in the chair beneath this large portrait that we are both looking at.” I imagine this is inflicted by the years of radio work that he did, but man, it takes me out of the story every time.
        3. Carr seems to occasionally forget that he isn’t writing one of his historical mysteries, and includes a line or two of dialogue that nobody in the twentieth century would ever utter.

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      2. You made me laugh out loud, Ben! I know writing for radio got to Carr, but carrying it into his books is hilarious. Now I’m gong to giggle every time I listen to an episode of Suspense.

        One thing you can say for Christie, who often comes under fire for a less than grand writing style, is that she wasn’t given to such verbal flummery. Her description was terse, for better or worse, and her dialogue was her best feature. I tend to think that women writers of the era wrote dialogue much better than the men; it’s true for Marsh, Brand, and McCloy as well. Carr invented some intriguing female characters, but just because I like them doesn’t mean I believed in them as actual women from their speech. Christie wrote men’s dialogue just fine, but she excelled at women and children. Flynn’s characters, which the Puzzle Doctor describes as often speaking like public schoolboys, are beyond annoying. I didn’t luck out with narrators here.

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        1. I like Christie’s description of characters because it’s terse but it’s done with a skillful hand, applying just a few strokes–a sentence or two–without overdoing it still leaving the reader with just enough to get a good grasp of the character. It sure beats paragraph after paragraph of description and you lose not only brevity but power. What can be said in 2 or 3 paragraphs can be said in a few sentences, even one.

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      3. You must have your comment threading set low, can’t properly reply to your other post…

        I think Carr had a talent for describing a scene that is nearly unsurpassed (not in his later years though) in the genre. In terms of characters, his sweet spot is in the 1940s, with the books spanning She Died a Lady through The Sleeping Sphinx. But yeah, even at his best he never captured a character like Christianna Brand did. But Helen McCloy? Come on!

        Christie – yeah, she’s not going to sweep you off your feet with her prose, but who cares. When you’re reading one of her stories, you’re thoroughly absorbed in it, and that’s all that matters.

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        1. I don’t know anything about settings, but I went to the comments settings and raised levels for . . . something!! We’ll see what happens. As for your snide remarks about Helen McCloy, I grant you she’s no Ellery Queen, but . . .

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  2. Brad, I was thinking about Flynn this morning. While I’ve enjoyed some of his books – The Orange Axe and The Padded Door are clever, so is Peacock’s Eye – I don’t rate him very highly. Stodgy detection; cardboard characterisation; a style that veers between Boy’s Own and wannabe Van Dine; and often hackneyed situations and desperately stupid plots. (Try The Triple Bite, with its flying Sri Lankan centipede, for instance.) Given the presence of gangs, master criminals, sinister foreigners, and poisons unknown to science, they’re really thrillers – cousins of Sexton Blake.

    And he doesn’t play fair.

    The Edge of Terror, by the way, is one of his worst. https://grandestgame.wordpress.com/2020/11/11/the-edge-of-terror-brian-flynn/

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  3. Your review says it all with far more succinctness. Honestly, I don’t remember the opening of Peacock’s Eye being both grandiose and dull at the same time. It just wore on me, and Bathurst is definitely of the Philo Vance School of Verbose Detection. I should go back P.E. and give it another try. Then there’s the little twist in Mapleton, which has been ruined for me again and again, so I assume the gender of a certain character is not the be-all and end-all of that book. But when I tried to start it, it began at a dinner party where I think thirty people were sitting, and we were introduced to all of them. It made me lose my appetite . . .

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  4. Out of the ten Flynn novels that I have read so far, this was unquestionably the worst. I am not sure why this one was selected for the book club.

    The murderer is obvious yet there is no fair play. Most of Bathurst’s investigations takes place off page, the motive comes out of nowhere and there is a heavy amount of padding (The relationship between Rosemary and Bathurst/Bannerman, The telephone call overheard, The inquiries about the fete etc. aren’t even remotely relevant to the plot)

    I’m afraid Flynn’s writing style and syntax remains the same but he wrote much better books. Creeping Jenny and Murder en route are my favourites.

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    1. It’s absurd to think that someone so prolific didn’t have at least a few good books under his belt. I have Peacock’s Eye and Mapleton on my Kindle, so I don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to decide what to buy next. And many have raved about Tread Softly. I don’t see myself becoming a frequent reader, but I’ll give him another try.

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  5. My own experience with Flynn has been mixed. I really enjoyed Murders Near Mapleton, found Five Red Fingers just average and hated Invisible Death. Real Soviet agents looked like Burgess, Philby and Blunt, not the bizarre clowns used in this book. I’m currently reading Creeping Jenny and enjoying it because of the the female characters. They don’t speak in quite the same upper-class twit style as the men quoted above.

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    1. Certain titles come up again and again: Mapleton, Peacock’s Eye, Tread Softly . . . and here are two recommendations in a row for Creeping Jenny. Well, at least we’re narrowing things down . . .

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  6. Well, shall I come to the defence of this one?

    No, everyone is entitled to their opinion and Brian’s verbosity is his most common criticism. Me, I find it rather marvellous, I love his turns of phrase, but yes, it’s not how people speak. By the way, Dorothy L Sayers is on your side here as well. However, there is something of a pattern with his use of it – it tends to be public school types who talk like this in Flynn’s work, so The Edge of Terror is a problem as such a person is the narrator.

    But it’s Flynn’s variety and originality of ideas, especially in the set-up that I think is his strength. I love Invisible Death, a marmite book, because it’s nothing like The Five Red Fingers and The Creeping Jenny Mystery, the books that sandwich it – if it wasn’t for Bathurst, you would think it’s a different writer. I love ideas like why did a dead body have a piece of cooked bacon rind in his belly button (Where There Was Smoke)? Why does a misplaced bath-plug imply murder (Men For Pieces)? Why are a dying man’s last words “innocent teaspoon” (The Ring Of Innocent)?

    I can see, however, that if Brian’s writing acrobatics don’t appeal to you, then it may be an uphill struggle to convert you. His style does settle down in the later books, but I still say give Tread Softly a chance – I think it’s his masterpiece.

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    1. Thanks for dropping in, PD! I know we’ll get into this in a lot more detail at Book Club, but it’s interesting that you say “shall I defend this one . . .” but you don’t really defend the book, just the author. And you certainly don’t have to defend Flynn to me or to others. The man wrote a bunch; he did all right! I love the idea of an author experimenting with every book, and you know how much I love a good set-up. Given that Flynn wrote 54, was was hoping that we would get on, and I still hope we can – at least some of the time. The problem is that everyone has a different opinion as to what constitutes GOOD Flynn. You say Tread Softly, TomCat says po-tah-to. I think I will revisit Clorania and give Mapleton another try as well, since many others have said good things. Then we’ll see where Brian (may I call him Brian) and I stand.

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      1. Well, I could defend it, as I really enjoyed it when I read it, but it’s been a while, and I’m only a couple of chapters in for the re-read. I’ll save the defence until Book Club

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  7. Like I said on Kate’s review of Invisible Death, Flynn entered the territory of second-string, pulp-style crime writers, such as John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner, with novels like Invisible Death, The Spiked Lion, The League of Matthias and The Edge of Terror. This one, in particular, is Fearn-like with its cinema bits. I thought it was a fun fairground ride of a story, but not one I would recommend to readers who are new to Flynn. And he shouldn’t be judged, as a mystery writer, based on his pulp-style thrillers. The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye, Murder en Route, The Padded Door (very audacious!), The Fortescue Candle and Fear and Trembling are all good or great detective novels.

    However, I thought the weak (cliched) solution of The Case of the Black Twenty-Two detracted from an otherwise good, 1920s mystery. The Five Red Fingers was smothered with red herrings and impossible to swallow coincidences, which makes everything in The League of Matthias look reasonable. I wasn’t bowled over by Tread Softly.

    My experience with Flynn has been mostly positive. Flynn was a mystery writers who simply wanted to write mysteries and tried his hands at everything. So you can compare his output to mixed bowl of candy for people who love detective fiction. You’re not going to like every type of candy in bowl, but there’s something in it for everyone.

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  8. Oh, is Penelope’s Web about to be translated into English? This would be the third or fourth time where I procure, and work through, a Chinese translation of a mystery novel – only to discover the imminent publication of the English translation. 😑

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    1. According to Santosh, it’s the next Halter coming out of LRI. Seriously, John, let me know which PH title you next buy in Chinese! I want to beat Santosh to the scoop for once!!

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  9. Great discussion. I’m in the middle with Flynn. I’ve read 7 Flynn books so far and have 7 more to read. (Thank goodness the ebooks are so cheap!) I liked “Peacock’s Eye” and “Marpleton” and wish I could have liked “Tread Softly” (brilliant setup ruined by lousy execution). The other 4 are mediocre (including “Edge of Terror”).

    I do find Flynn more readable than Christopher Bush (it’s a slog trying to keep track of all those alibis) but not as entertaining as Francis Vivian (my favorite of the “re-discovered” British mystery authors).

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  10. Some 14 years ago I posted a review of Flynn’s THE SHARP QUILLET on my blog, which I think was long before anyone in this country had ever heard of him:

    http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=131

    I haven’t read another, yet, but it’s very good to know that I now have the chance. Not that I will, necessarily, but it’s good to know.

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  11. Thanks for the review… I confess I haven’t had much luck with Flynn thus far. I didn’t especially enjoy “Spiked Lion” or “Mapleton”; “Murder En-route” fared better. The best of the four was “Creeping Jenny”. Then again, I have yet to try the much-lauded “Peacock’s Eye” and “Tread Softly”.

    I’ve read “Penelope’s Web”, and thought it was good. Hopefully you’ll like it! 🕷

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