Not so long ago, the books of Brian Flynn were an unknown quantity to most fans of detective fiction, certainly including me. Now, they are in the course of being reprinted by the estimable Dean Street Press. And this is largely thanks to the enthusiastic advocacy of one person, Steve Barge, who blogs as Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery, and provides informative intros to the reprints.
Flynn enjoyed a long career in excess of thirty years, and published over fifty novels. Some earned good reviews, and he was published overseas and in translation in the early part of his writing life. But he'd faded from the limelight long before his final book came out in 1958. And probably it's optimistic to suggest that he was ever actually in the limelight. The firms who published him in the UK were respectable but not exactly market leaders. As a crude rule of thumb, it's fair to say that most of the better writers are published by one of the top firms at some point in their career. For instance, Lorac migrated from Sampson Low to Collins, Cecil M. Wills from John Heritage to Hodder, and so on.
One of the key questions about forgotten authors, inevitably, is whether their neglect is understandable. You don't remain a published novelist for thirty years without having some ability as a storyteller (or so I often tell myself) but this doesn't mean that you're an overlooked master of the genre either. I tried a Flynn novel a while ago, but as a result of a number of distractions found myself unable to get into it. When I read Steve's blog post about The Edge of Terror, I felt the moment had come to give Flynn my undivided attention. And so I read the book within a few days of laying my hands on a copy.
I had mixed feelings about the story for a long time, but I felt that the final section worked well enough for me to be very glad I'd read it. The downsides involve Flynn's cluttered prose and often stodgy dialogue. The doctor-narrator has an irritating style, e.g. 'Bathurst had a sudden visualization of activity and, as was his invariable custom, he was shedding the mantle of meditation for the cloak of clash.' As for the Great Detective, Anthony Bathurst: 'Well, Inspector, you haven't come to the Rowfants to tell us about the status quo ante. I'm confident of that. What is it that's haunting your tortured soul. Open the can.' There's a touch of the wannabe Dorothy L. Sayers about this type of writing, and it didn't work for me. Nor did the middle section of the story, which lacked tension. The book introduces a woman whom Bathurst once loved, but I felt more could have been made of her contribution to the story.
And yet. Just when I was lamenting the lack of excitement and suspense in comparison to that conjured up in the serial killer novels Francis Beeding and Philip Macdonald were writing at around the same time, the story seemed to spring to life. I very much enjoyed the fact that Flynn utilised a version of an idea that I happen to be researching right now, but quite apart from that, I felt that the later chapters had a verve that had earlier been lacking. There's also a clue in a name that I didn't spot, and which is nicely done. All in all, there was enough here to make me see why Steve likes Flynn and to feel that I'd be happy to read more of the books.