THE CHARACTERS: Anthony Bathurst is called upon to assist in solving the murder of the man on the bus in Murder En Route (1930), the eighth book in a long series featuring this consulting detective. I've not been too impressed with Bathurst in the two other books I read. One I finished (The Billiard Room Mystery) and found to be run-of-the-mill and the other (The Ladder of Death) was so dull and stagnant that I closed the book and never finished. Clearly I picked two of his lesser efforts. Murder En Route opens with a baffling murder in the very first chapter. As the crime is investigated the story gets more and more puzzling and will intersect with a secondary story about a missing heir to a vast fortune.
This time Bathurst is not the vain fop I so disliked in the other books. He is engaging and likeable, with a keen eye for minutiae and a skill in getting to people to open up. Granted he still exhibits an egocentric manner in his omniscient detective ways but the usual accompanying arrogance seen in so many similar fictional detectives is absent here. Rather Bathurst is eager to enlist as many people as he can to help him. He has a regular battalion of aides in this outing including our sometime narrator Rector Parry-Probyn, the rector's son Michael often found behind the wheel of Bathurst's Crossley as they travel to and from the multiple locations, and a father and son lawyer team. Of course the police are on the case as well but oddly Bathurst manages to make it seem as if they are working for him rather than vice versa.
We learn early on that Bathurst, in addition to his renown as a police consultant, is quite a Renaissance man with an encyclopedic knowledge on various arcane topics. He tells Rector Parry-Probyn that he is a musician (we never learn what instrument he plays, however) and proceeds to compliment him on the service he attended and in the process showing off his knowledge of church music. The conversation quickly moves from topic to topic. I'll let the rector explain how Bathurst astonished him:
We began to talk and we went on talking. In the space of an all-too-short hour we touched on football (both codes), rowing, church architecture, ancient monoliths, the susceptibility of the turquoise to polish, sclerosis of the posterior columns and degenerative arterial change, the Black Mass and the Medea of Euripedes.Anthony Bathurst could give Philo Vance a run for his money in a contest of esoterica and arcane erudition! We also later discover that Bathurst has a wide knowledge of the life of bivalves and the laws pertaining to their collection which proves to be very helpful in connecting the dots to the very involved and baroquely performed murder scheme.
Flynn has a keen ear for local patois and likes to recreate dialects and regionalisms among the minor characters. One of the more memorable scenes takes place in the Quarryman Inn where Bathurst tracks down a codger named Old Orlando who has quite a few stories to tell about the murder victim while a couple of other bar patrons volunteer information about one of Bathurst's cohorts in crime solving.
Really there's never a dull moment in this story with its large cast of well defined characters, some of whom sadly run to stereotypes or are barely fleshed out like Eileen Trevor, one of only two women characters in the novel. Yet none of the story ever feels stale or old hat thanks largely to the lively portrayal of Bathurst in the lead role and the deftly plotted, well thought out, but entirely far-fetched mystery that leads to a melodramatic, thrillingly cinematic climax near an abandoned coal mine.
INNOVATIONS: Flynn does a very odd thing in this book. He starts off in third person and then introduces a first person narration in a fragmented manuscript written by the Rector. And yet in much of the first person narration the clergyman was never present for what is described. We get typically lame sentences like "Of course Michael later informed me of what happened and I have done my best to recreate the conversations to the best of my ability." But three entire chapters revert to the third person when the plot veers into the story of Eileen Trevor, her missing father, and the inheritance he is due. Why not just tell those portions of the story where the Rector is absent in the third person as well? It's just strange to me and mildly annoying as a sign of sloppy method of mixing points of view. My guess is that Flynn so enjoyed the bizarre Edwardian style syntax that comes out of the pen of Rector Parry-Probyn that he could not help himself but give over to that eccentric voice as often as he could get away with it.
The most creative aspects of this detective novel are in its construction of the impossible crime, the dizzying number of impersonations, and the amazing abundance of well placed "fair play" clues. Among the tantalizing evidence Bathurst and the police discover are a mysterious white-gray streak on the back of victim's coat and the powerfully fishy smell that permeates all his clothing; a racing program with some odd numbers in columns marked S, T, D, M; a photograph of two men one of whom is holding a sign that reads "Lifting of the Ban;" the strange reference to a street by its decade's old defunct name rather than its current name; and a pair of glasses with a prescription stronger in the left lens than the right. That's just a brief sample of the avalanche of clues and baffling aspects associated with the murder. There's enough here to keep even the most demanding detective novel reader very much on his toes.
If there is anything to gripe about it is Bathurst's unfortunate predilection in not being forthright with all he is thinking or all he has uncovered. He plays guessing games with the Rector at one point and praises him when he's right, but never fills in the missing pieces when the rector is stumped. This is because Flynn is one of those mystery writers who likes to deliver the full solution all at once in a grandiose unveiling in the final chapter. Some of the info would've been better revealed earlier to make the ending less drawn out and cumbersome.
THINGS I LEARNED: Whether it is Flynn himself or the character of the Rector who allowed Flynn to indulge in numerous allusions, Murder En Route is rife with obscure historical and literary references. Some of these allusions were linked by a single person who I think is a primary influence on Flynn's writing.
When someone remarks that no man can be in two places at once the Rector counters with: "Barring, of course, that he's a bird. I hope that in the circumstance Sir Boyle Roche will pardon the flagrant plagiarism." Roche was an 18th century Irish politician known for his absurd mixed metaphors and poor use of figurative language in his speeches and letters. The Rector's comment directly references Roche's most oft quoted quip: "Mr. Speaker, it is impossible I could have been in two places at once, unless I were a bird." Click here for a selection of Roche's other ill phrased metaphors.
Eileen Trevor is a schoolteacher and plays on the field hockey team at Freyne House where she teaches. Her masterful athletic skill is commented on by a sports writer: "That girl...was more like S. H. Shoveller than any woman centre I have ever seen." Shoveller was the star player on England's Gold medal winning field hockey team in the 1908 Olympics. [Men's field hockey was an Olympic event one hundred ten years ago? Waddyah know.]
On page 125 Flynn goes into rapturous detail about his setting of Glebeshire, "universally acknowledged to be the most beautiful county in England." The entire page is filled with the gorgeous weather, the climate that allows tropical plants and fruits to flourish, and the languorous life of a person blessed enough to have settled there. Except that it doesn't exist. It is the creation of novelist Hugh Walpole who set most of his books in that fictional county. Pretty damn ballsy to steal someone else's fictional setting and plop down your own characters there.
|Flynn's Great Influence?
Finally on page 158 Bathurst quotes another English writer when he says "When you want a good wife, M. De Marsac." referring to the title character in A Gentleman of France (1895) by Stanley Weyman. Weyman has been described as a writer of "the finest English historical romances since Scott." Guess who said that about Weyman? Hugh Walpole! Is that too much of a coincidence? I think not. Flynn is mad about Walpole. I'm sure his other books are loaded with Walpole references. His elliptical syntax and repetitive prose is very much reminiscent of some of Walpole's own ornate style of writing.
EASY TO FIND? This one is a strike out, gang. I seem to have bought the only copy available in years. Currently there are no copies available from any online bookselling sites. You may find one at Biblio.com offered by Arroyo Seco but it's gone from their stock. That's the one I bought using their listings on abebooks.com. Now watch one pop up on eBay in a couple of weeks. It's been known to happen after I post about a scarce book. Being one of Flynn's earliest mystery novels Murder En Route was published in both UK and US editions. But obviously both are as rare as a wooden nickel these days. However, if you are lucky enough to stumble across a copy I'd snap it up in an instant. I enjoyed it immensely and it proves that the obscure writers can dish up an engrossing, ingenious and thrilling detective story to match any of the greats of the Golden Age.