THE STORY: Oscar Bilkin, grocer and fishmonger in the village of Halingford, receives an anonymous letter warning he and his family to "GET OUT BEFORE TOMORROW. YOU ARE ALL IN DANGER". He has no idea why he was warned nor who might have sent such an ominous letter. his family is convinced it's a nasty joke so Bilkin asks around and approaches a local known for stupid pranks. Everyone including the prankster (aptly named Wagstaff) denies sending the note. He heads to the police thinking it may not be a joke at all. They provide him with protection for the next two days. The policeman sent to guard the place will intervene if he sees anything remotely suspicious about to take place. the next day shortly after the daily delivery of Bilkin's ice he does as he always does - takes a hammer and chisel to the big slab to break it up for the fish display. After one strike of the chisel there is a horrible explosion and the Bilkin's shop goes up in flames. Everyone in the vicinity is knocked to ground. Mr. Bilkin does not fare as well. The police seem to have a sinister arsonist in their midst. Soon another building is targeted. Can the police prevent another raging fire and stop a mad arsonist from destroying the village?
THE CHARACTERS: Flashpoint (1950) is unlike many of the previous Dr. Hugo Carruthers detective novels I've read. First, Inspector Garth is nowhere in sight. Instead we have Supt. Denning and his crew of policeman in Halingford. Also, the suspect pool is much larger than usual and Fearn does a good job of making the arson attacks appear to be the work of several different people with different motives over the course of the story. There are more women characters than usual with a surprise coming in the form of Claire Denbury, a chorus girl who provides one of the more satisfying dramatic moments late in the book.
In this second outing in a relatively short series Dr. Carruthers proves to be less irascible than usual and reveals a hidden romantic side. He has hired as his assistant Gordon Drew recently returned to his hometown after losing his job when the London firm he was working for was destroyed in a fire. Pure coincidence that arson rears its ugly head again when Gordon comes to Halingford? Drew claims to have come to town to renew his friendship with Janet Lloyd, his former sweetheart. Dr. Carruthers approves and makes light jibes about Gordon and Janet whenever he has a chance. But of course the real reason he is on hand is to help the police solve the mystery of the fires. How did someone manage to start a fire in what appears to have been an explosive chunk of ice? Later the physicist is asked to explain the eerie purple color of a second fire (reminding me of The Case of the Violet Smoke by Nigel Morland writing as "John Donavan") and how the arsonist managed to set fire to a building when the place was under constant guard. Students of basic chemistry might be able to uncover these two mysteries pages before Carruthers stuns everyone with his knowledge.
INNOVATIONS: The means of the first arson is extremely clever. I managed to figure it out based solely on the description of how the ice was delivered and its odd appearance. Going into anymore detail might ruin what amounts to several well hidden clues. The second quasi-impossible fire was less impressive but did include similar unusual chemical properties that made it less than an average firebug's crime.
Apart from the chemistry involved in the arson Fearn neatly handles other clues related to motive and the identity of the culprit behind the fires and a later murder. By far this is the most mature detective novel of Fearn's I have read. It suffers not from Fearn's usual pulpy style of writing or the sense that it was a padded short story. All the characters were much more human, and believable than in other books in this series. This one resembles more closely the style of the Maria Black detective novels with their emphasis on character relationships and human drama, rather than outlandish plotting and detective novel gimmickry.
QUOTES: "The modern criminal, my boy is one of the most scientific beings alive," Caruuthers answered. "... The average murderer you'll find plastered in every newspaper in the country, but not the ingenious one--unless he's caught. That's where I come in--and other experts like me. We are dedicated to the task of defeating the new criminal, the man or woman who makes use of modern methods to perpetrate his or her villainy. ...Why else do you imagine the Yard has become so highly scientific these days? Only to keep pace with the even more subtle ways of the scientific evil-doer."
Prior to his unfortunate death Mr. Bilkin spends the morning "arranging cabbages in the form of an Aunt Sally". I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Off to the internet I went. Took a couple of searches before I came up with the right Aunt Sally. Turns out Fearn was alluding to a traditional pub game (see illustration at right). Players throw sticks at a model of a woman's head that had come to be called Aunt Sally. The game dates back to the 17th century apparently and today is still played by teams in pubs. However, the Aunt Sally now resembles something like a giant chess pawn than it does a woman's head.
pernoctation - multisyllabic, fancy way to say night vigil. Comes from the nearly obsolete verb "pernoctate" meaning "to stay up or out all night; especially: to pass the night in vigil or prayer."
Hans Gross is mentioned in passing when Carruthers is discoursing on the psychology behind and methods of arson. I vaguely recalled his name but had to resort to Googling to refresh my memory. Gross is a name that crops up many times in Golden Age detective fiction, especially in the works of John Dickson Carr. An Austrian psychologist who specialized in criminal behavior Hans Gross has been dubbed the "father of forensics" in various website articles. His seminal work, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (1893) was a groundbreaking manual for the intended audience of police coroners but also was useful for judges and lawyers. In it Gross called attention to the psychology of the criminal mind and warned members of the police and legal professions to pay heed to everything over the course of a criminal investigation. He stressed preserving the integrity of a crime scene, to treat all physical evidence with care, and even discussed the importance of noting the body language of the accused while in the courtroom.
EASY TO FIND? This was at one time one of the most difficult titles in John Russell Fearn's large output of detective fiction. Originally published under his pseudonym "Hugo Blayn" it was reprinted at least four times according to the copy I own. But used hardcover copies of this 1950s edition are rare these days. According to the email exchange I had with Philip Harbottle, Fearn's literary executor and tireless champion of his friend's work, this book will be reprinted by Endeavour Press and made available as an eBook. I'm unsure when it will be released. Until then you can find Flashpoint in a paperback, large print edition put out by Linford Mystery Library. Currently, there are at least five used copies available for sale online.
NEWS FLASH! Be sure to read TomCat's post "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn", a guest post consisting of a long letter that Philip Harbottle wrote to me. But he made an error in typing my email address and it went into digital limbo. He then asked for TomCat's help in contacting me. Eventually I got the letter and he and I also exchanged some emails of our own. In the meantime TomCat had an idea to share this letter with everyone and Phil granted permission to have the letter uploaded to TomCat's blog.