Steve Barge, who blogs as The Puzzle Doctor, has done Golden Age mystery fans a big favour by reviving interest in the books of Brian Flynn and working with Dean Street Press to reissue a good many of the novels. Steve's intros are a model of their kind: concise, informative, and readable. I've read several of the books now and I must say that they contain some excellent ideas, several of which are genuinely ingenious and definitely pleasing.
This is certainly true of The Murders Near Mapleton, which dates from 1929. The story gets off to a tremendous start. The setting of the first chapter, a country house dinner on Christmas Eve, is conventional enough, but there are interesting undercurrents in the dinner table conversation and Flynn wastes no time in getting down to action. By page 34, the master of the house has gone missing, a threatening message has been discovered in a Christmas cracker, two dead bodies have been found (one on a railway track) and one of the deceased, believed by everyone to be a man, turns out to be a woman. Oh, and quite apart from various other minor excitements, somehow the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Austin Kemble, has got involved.
I was impressed by all of this and it's fair to say that, when all is revealed, there are some very clever touches indeed. But - you knew there was a 'but' coming, didn't you? - this book also displays Flynn's characteristic weaknesses. The first of these is that his brilliant amateur detective, Anthony Bathurst, is smug and (in this book more than the others I've read) frankly irritating. One also wonders how Sir Austin got such a plum job - he seems to be so useless as to make Francis Durbridge's Sir Graham Forbes seem like Poirot. Flynn's over-ornate writing style also makes me groan. For instance: 'The realisation flooded his brain with pellucid certainty that once again the clutch of circumstance had summoned him to cross swords with one who was undoubtedly a master criminal.' Steve wonders why Flynn was never elected to the Detection Club; I'm pretty sure the answer is to be found in Dorothy L.Sayers' reviews of two of his 1934 novels - she notes the ingenuity, but flays the prose.
In any elaborate mystery of this type, the author hopes (believe me, I know!) that the reader will be generous in terms of suspending disbelief. Fair enough. However, I was completely baffled by the fact that the transvestism was almost ignored by the detectives, even though inevitably it played a - wholly unconvincing, I'm afraid - part in the story. Sir Austin and the almost equally hapless Inspector Craig hardly mention it and even Anthony seems to take the deception for granted.
As Steve Barge points out, Gladys Mitchell used a very similar idea in a novel also published in 1929 - a notable coincidence, but I agree with him that there's no reason to suspect plagiarism; it's clearly just an idea that occurred to two writers at much the same time, something that happens in reality with quite depressing frequency, perhaps as a reaction to a topical news item. But I do think better use could be made of this idea than Flynn managed. For some time, inspired by the Mitchell novel, I've been wondering if the concept could become an ingredient in a Rachel Savernake mystery and used in a fresh way. Maybe reading this book is the spur I needed!
This novel has been widely discussed on the blogosphere, and although the review on The Grandest Game in the World is pretty crushing, the overall consensus of the reviews is definitely favourable - see, for instance, this one at Murder Ahoy! Despite my reservations, and my sense that this book could have been terrific and didn't live up to its early promise, I did enjoy reading it, something that without Steve's efforts and his advocacy for Brian Flynn simply wouldn't have been possible.