Such Bright Disguises by Brian Flynn

The Verdict

An excellent inverted mystery featuring interesting characters and a wonderful ending.

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
Anthony Bathurst #27
Preceded by They Never Came Back
Followed by Glittering Prizes

The Blurb

Hubert Grant is a fairly unpleasant man. He also thinks he is happily married.

Dorothy Grant despises her husband but finds consolation in the handsome Laurence Weston. In order for the lovers to be happy, however, the intolerable Hubert needs to be cut out of the picture. Permanently.

Dorothy and Laurence start plotting. But the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley and by the end of the scheming, there will be more than one body. Enter detective extraordinaire Anthony Bathurst . . .

“…I’ve made up my mind – once and for all. I’ll get rid of the brute.”

My Thoughts

It was inevitable that Such Bright Disguises would be my next Brian Flynn novel, ever since I read that it was an inverted mystery. As I understand it, this makes the novel something of a rarity in the Flynn oeuvre which is a shame as I think this is a great example of the sub-genre.

Such Bright Disguises is a novel that is comprised of three distinct sections. The first, titled ‘Hubert’, begins in the days running up to Christmas as Dorothy Grant sits at home awaiting the arrival of a luxury hamper filled with treats selected by her husband Hubert for their festivities. Rather than looking forward to some time with her husband, daughter and their friends, Dorothy is dreading it. She wishes instead that she could be sharing the season with her lover Laurence.

After illustrating the building sense of resentment within the Grant household, Flynn provides an incident that will spark the young couple to decide on murder as the solution to their problem. This section concludes shortly after that first murder takes place.

It takes Flynn some time to get to the point where his characters will decide upon murder but these early chapters do set up some important plotting points that we will return to later in the novel. They also do an excellent job of exploring these characters and their relationships with one another.

I was really impressed by the quality of Flynn’s characterizations of Dorothy, Hubert and Laurence. Part of the reason for this is the author’s unusually frank depiction of a crumbling marriage and infidelity, capturing the resentments and desires, particularly those of a married woman, in a way that feels quite surprising. That is not to say that readers are encouraged to sympathize with Dorothy – some of her thoughts about possibly abandoning her daughter in favor of her lover put pay to that – but I do think we are meant to empathize with her feelings of being bullied and stifled by a husband who views her purely as an ornament.

While Flynn does outline the events leading up to the murder, we do not witness the event itself or get much detailed discussion of the investigation at this point in the story. This is not uncommon in inverted stories of this period and I think this reflects that he is more interested in the characters’ mindsets and some elements of the planning than in exploring the violent details of the murder. There is a little ambiguity in a few elements of the plan, some of which will be explained later (very cleverly in the case of one element) though I felt that the novel never sufficiently addressed the involvement of a woman in the events of that night.

The second section, ‘Laurence’, picks up shortly after the murder and explores what becomes of the couple as they attempt to start a life together. As is often the case in inverted mysteries, the act of murder is shown to have create some pretty significant psychological stress for those involved. Flynn does an excellent job of depicting those stresses and the different ways that Laurence and Dorothy respond to them.

In addition to this psychological drama, Flynn also introduces a new element to the story that not only heightens some of those tensions but also provides a more typical mystery question for the reader to consider. While the answer to that question is unlikely to surprise readers in itself, I felt Flynn uses this element of the story cleverly within the context of the novel as a whole.

Further complications come with the delivery of those additional bodies that are promised in the blurb quoted above. While I anticipated these developments, their introduction did provide a bit of a wow moment for me in how sharply the story turns and transforms as it enters its final part.

Anthony Bathurst makes his brief appearance in this section which follows an investigation into all of the events that had preceded it. This section of the book is far shorter than either of the other two parts – according to my eBook copy it starts at the 75% point – and readers should not anticipate a particularly complex investigation. There is not the sort of case where there are a lot of witnesses or suspects for Bathurst to interview and so this phase of the story feels quite compact and, because of the nature of what is discovered, surprisingly punchy.

Flynn presents some fascinating moments and story beats here as plot points are connected and we come to understand exactly what has taken place. The conclusion he reaches did not surprise me as it seemed to be a natural fit to the conditions that preceded it and yet I was still impressed by the neatness of the plotting here and the boldness of the storytelling.

If I have a slight disappointment about the resolution, it is only that I had thought of two possible alternate endings and solutions to the mystery element of the novel that I think might have taken that idea even further. By the time we reach this third part I recognized that one of these was impossible but I felt my other idea would have still fitted all the facts of the case and would have had the benefit of being a little less predictable than the actual solution. Still, while I may mourn what I see as a missed opportunity with regards the ending, I think what we get is really pretty special.

If Frances, Dorothy’s young daughter, were to describe Such Bright Disguises she would no doubt brand it as being ‘simply wizard’. While the pacing is careful and deliberate, the characters are beautifully drawn and the story is cleverly structured, building to a very strong conclusion. While those who are looking primarily for a detective story may want to check out some different Flynn titles first, lovers of inverted mysteries are unlikely to be disappointed.

The Murders Near Mapleton by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published in 1930

Anthony Bathurst #4
Preceded by The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye
Followed by The Five Red Fingers

The Blurb

Christmas Eve at Vernon House is in full swing. Sir Eustace’s nearest and dearest, and the great and the good of Mapleton, are all there. But the season of comfort and joy doesn’t run true to form. Before the night is out, Sir Eustace has disappeared and his butler, Purvis, lies dead, poisoned, with a threatening message in his pocket. Or is it her pocket?

That same evening, Police Commissioner Sir Austin Kemble and investigator Anthony Bathurst are out for a drive. They come across an abandoned car at a railway crossing, and find a body – Sir Eustace Vernon, plus two extraordinary additions. One, a bullet hole in the back of his head. Two, a red bon-bon in his pocket with a threatening message attached.

The Verdict

An enjoyable puzzler which offers up a number of interesting questions for the reader to solve.


My Thoughts

I really enjoyed my first taste of Brian Flynn’s work when I read and reviewed Tread Softly earlier this year and ever since then I have been keen to get back to him. When I remembered that he had written a mystery that begins at a Christmas Eve dinner party I thought that it might be a good candidate for my festive reads series and decided I would give it a try.

Sir Eustace Vernon hosts a gathering at his home which is attended by his friends and neighbors. After giving a short speech he opens a red bonbon, which the excellent introduction to the reprint explains is another term for cracker, and reads the message inside. Moments later he hurriedly excuses himself from the party, explaining that he has received ‘some very bad news’. The event continues for some time but eventually his absence is noticed. A note is found suggesting that Sir Eustace intends to take what some may consider ‘the coward’s way out’ prompting a search. Instead of Sir Eustace however they find the butler dead with a red bonbon in their pocket containing a threat that they have just one hour to live and will pay their debt that very night.

Coincidentally Sir Austin Kemble, the Police Commissioner, and Anthony Bathurst are in the vicinity when they notice an abandoned car near a railroad crossing. Stopping to investigate, they notice Sir Eustace’s body on the tracks. While the first thought is suicide, the discovery of an identicle threatening note in the bonbon in his pocket leads Bathurst to suspect murder – an idea borne out when the investigation reveals he was shot in the back of the head.

The opening chapters of the book are excellent with Flynn doing an excellent job of introducing the reader to the characters and establishing the chain of events leading to the disappearance, often in quite some detail. One example would be the careful descriptions of who was sat in which spots around the dinner table and how they were positioned in relation to the each. On occasions information that will be relevant later is almost buried in description or conversation, making it feel all the more satisfying whenever the reader does catch an important point.

Let’s dispense with the weakest part of the novel first: the murder of the butler. This is not weak because the concepts are poor but simply because there is so little time given to this story thread. In short, we are never given enough time with the character to feel truly invested in them and so their story can feel like a bit of an afterthought, particularly given the way it is suddenly resurrected in the final chapters and explained away.

In contrast, the main storyline feels rather more compelling. I think that this is partly because we get to know Sir Eustace before his vanishing and the subsequent discovery of his body, building the reader’s attachment, but it is also that the knowledge that he has a niece humanizes him, as does the story of his bravery in saving children from a huge fire. It helps too that the situation around the disappearance and murder raises so many interesting questions about the victim and the circumstances of his murder.

Bathurst once again makes for a fun and engaging investigator in the Great Detective style. He focuses in on small details of the crime scene and declares at several points that a piece of evidence or information is vital to the understanding of what happened. There are a few occasions where those declarations feel a little hasty, yet given they are there for the reader’s benefit it didn’t trouble me too much.

While I think the ultimate explanation of the crime is clever, if a little sensational, there is an aspect of the solution that I felt was insufficiently clued. I could guess at the idea based on other aspects of the scenario but it seemed that there were few if any positive clues for the reader or Bathurst to reach that conclusion. To be clear, I still appreciated and was entertained by the solution but some may feel that Bathurst doesn’t quite have enough evidence to back up every point in the case he will make.

Overall however I found The Murders at Mapleton to be a very enjoyable read and one that delivered exactly what I hoped for – a puzzling scenario with some unique points of interest. It makes solid use of its seasonal elements yet it can be easily appreciated at any time of year. In short, another positive experience with Flynn’s work that leaves me excited to delve more deeply in the new year.

Tread Softly by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published 1937
Anthony Bathurst #20
Preceded by Fear and Trembling
Followed by Cold Evil

The Blurb

Chief Inspector MacMorran is up against the most extraordinary case of his career – a self-confessed killer who may well be found innocent given the circumstances. MacMorran is sure that Merivale is the murderer, but, worried about exoneration in court, he recruits investigator Anthony Bathurst to find evidence to convict.

Bathurst isn’t convinced. If Merivale killed his wife deliberately, why pick such a risky story which is just as likely to convict as clear him? But if Merivale is innocent, was a third party involved? And if so – how?

The Verdict

Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

I have wanted to tackle an Anthony Bathurst novel on this blog for quite some time but with so many now available, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Happily earlier this week, the Puzzle Docctor provided some helpful guidance and so I decided to bypass the ten titles I owned already in favor of this title, his top recommendation. As it happens it is a book that seemed particularly well aligned with my own taste in mystery fiction.

While most mystery stories begin prior to or immediately after a murder, Tread Softly begins with someone having already made their confession. Actor Claude Merivale had turned himself in at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for killing his wife. The twist however is that he claims that this happened while he was sleeping, strangling her while experiencing a really vivid dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran believes that this is a story that Merivale has concocted to avoid responsibility and asks Bathurst to find evidence to back that up.

This unusual starting point for the investigation gives it a rather different tone and structure from many Golden Age detective stories. For one thing, the knowledge that a trial will soon begin means that Bathurst is working against the clock, adding to the urgency of the investigation. For another, the existence of a confession means that we have a clear sequence of events to consider and compare with the evidence Bathurst will find in the course of his own investigation.

It is easy to imagine how this structure could have gone wrong. Rather than presenting the reader with an open field of suspects and motives, instead they are asked to consider what appears to be a series of related questions with very limited possibilities. Either Merivale is innocent or guilty? If he is innocent, why tell the police he is responsible? If he did actually do the deed, was he awake or asleep?

One of the reasons that I think this scenario never feels constricting is that Flynn quickly establishes, through Bathurst, a series of other questions and problems with the scenarios presented by Merivale and MacMorran that show that neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. We assume that this book cannot simply require us to verify one of these two stories – that the truth must lie somewhere in between if not in an entirely different place altogether. This allows the book to navigate and sustain some ambiguity about whether it is an inverted mystery, a psychological suspense story or a more traditional whodunit.

I really enjoyed the early chapters of the book in which we are given quite a bit of information that is still unknown to our sleuth. We get to know Merivale and some members of his household, read some correspondence and get a better sense of Merivale’s personality. There are even a few moments in which we learn some of his thoughts which rather than throwing light on the matter only seem to make it more confusing.

A short trial sequence falls at the midpoint of the book. In this chapter we are introduced to the members of the jury and follow them as they briefly debate their view of the case, albeit in generalities rather than specifics, before they reach a verdict. The trial is probably my least favorite section of the book though I think Flynn does a pretty good job of creating a set of different personalities to make up his jury and I do appreciate that it serves as a transition to the second phase of the novel in which Bathurst digs a little deeper to try and uncover the truth of what happened that night.

I don’t want to say too much about that final section of the book except that it is a clever investigation that contains some pretty interesting developments. Flynn incorporates one or two very inventive ideas into the plot and I will say I was utterly baffled about how Bathurst would make sense of it all. Happily he does though and everything is explained. While I have a few reservations related to the an aspect of the motive, the solution is quite clever and original in places.

I enjoyed Bathurst’s company and particularly his interactions with MacMorran throughout the book. As investigators from the gifted amateur school go, he is pretty charming – managing to walk the difficult line of being obviously very smart and well-read without being smug and insufferable.

Overall then I was very impressed with Tread Softly which I found to be baffling and entertaining in pretty equal measure. I have little doubt I will return to Bathurst soon and I look forward to seeing what else Brian Flynn has in store for me.


Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor offered up an initial review and also awards it the top spot in his top ten titles of the first twenty by Flynn (linked above).

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime offered a very positive review and I see looking at it that I responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that this played with the notion of the inverted mystery in the comments. I can only say that my efforts to track down a copy were met with no success at the time as these reprints were, at that point, but a twinkle in the eye of Puzzle Doctor and Dean Street Press!

TomCat @ Moonlight Detective is a little more muted in their praise, preferring Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and Murder Near Mapleton.

Similarly Dead Yesterday offers a broadly positive review. Common to this and all of the above is praise for the book’s unusual concept and structure.


A Cataloguing Note

For a substantial portion of the book this crime is presented ambiguously as though we could either be looking at a traditional whodunnit or an inverted mystery. As I am aware that my tagging choice would reveal the answer to that (as well as this book having appeal to fans of both styles) I have tagged it as though each were the correct solution.