The Case of the Painted Ladies by Brian Flynn
Originally published in 1940
Anthony Bathurst #25
Preceded by The Case of the Faithful Heart
Followed by They Never Came Back
Three remarkable things happen to Aubrey Coventry in one day. First, he is contacted by Wall Street financier Silas Montgomery with a lucrative business proposition – although Montgomery insists on meeting him at two a.m. the following day. Second, at a village garden party, a fortune teller cannot read his future, as he does not have one. And thirdly, a shabbily-dressed man reacts with a vicious snarl when simply asked for a light.
The fortune teller is proven correct when Coventry is found dead in his office the next morning. Private Detective Anthony Bathurst finds himself on the trail of the snarling man, reported to have been following Coventry in the night. To unmask the culprit, however, Bathurst is going to need help from some very special friends…
The last time I read and wrote about one of Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst novels, the sublime Such Bright Disguises, I ended up nominating it for Reprint of the Year. Little wonder then that I have been keen to return to the series but one of the challenges has been trying to figure out what I wanted to read next. With so many already reprinted and with more on the way, we are somewhat spoiled for choice.
Rather than defer to someone else’s judgment, I decided that I would eschew from reading reviews or soliciting recommendations. Instead I would base my choice purely on cover and blurb appeal, ultimately selecting this novel for the rather intriguing set of strange happenings described.
The novel opens by describing how in the course of a single day Aubrey Coventry ends up experiencing several strange events. The first is a telephone call from a leading Wall Street financier seeking a meeting alone in Aubrey’s home in the early hours of the morning. The second, a chilling session with a fortune teller who tells him that he has no future to read. The final, an odd interaction with a shabbily-dressed man in the park who snarls and backs away when Aubrey speaks to him.
The next day Coventry is discovered dead in his office having been murdered in the early hours of the morning after apparently meeting with that financier. No papers seem to have been stolen, nor any valuables as those were kept at his bank.
I quite enjoyed the rather unusual setup that Flynn creates for this story. Rather than trying to establish the victim as someone people would naturally want to kill, the murder of Aubrey seems every bit as odd as the things he had experienced the day before. It appears to be a motiveless crime and so the only leads open for our hero are following up on those strange events to see if any, or all, may be connected with the death.
The results are really quite intriguing and often the information we learn only makes the events seem stranger. Take, for instance, what we learn about the phone call that Aubrey receives to arrange the meeting which begs a further series of questions. Similarly Flynn plays beautifully with the idea of the psychic, creating a strong atmosphere both during Aubrey’s interview and subsequently in Bathurst’s questioning of them. The reader may well wonder quite how they could know as much as they do and wonder if they may possibly have some powers after all.
The plot that Flynn develops arguably reads more like a thriller than a typical detective story, though there are many opportunities for the reader to use their deductive skills to get ahead of the narrative. I suspect it would be hard though for anyone to predict quite where this story is ultimately headed until they are quite some way into the novel. That journey is, of course, a large part of the fun.
While some of the moments of deduction feel smart and creative, there are a few points I felt that Bathurst is made to seem brilliant by making MacMorran, in contrast, appear quite unobservant. One of the strongest examples of this for me was a visual clue, given to the reader, in the reproduction of the text from a torn note. Bathurst’s reasoning in that scene is perfectly fine but MacMorran’s fawning over his brilliance, rather than building up the character’s achievement seems to serve to make it feel like our hero is very late to tell us something we have likely already figured out for ourselves.
I liked a lot of what happens in this story though I think there are some points where Flynn’s language is distractingly odd. One akward sentence that stood out particularly to me was when Bathurst makes a comment about a blind person needing to utilize their other ‘sense assets’ to compensate for their lack of sight. Still, for the most part it works quite nicely.
Perhaps the aspect of the story I appreciate most though is its willingness to break conventions and expectations. I particularly enjoyed the way the story references some other great fictional detectives, even having some appear directly in the book’s wonderfully inventive, if utterly far-fetched, denouement.
The Verdict: This is, ultimately, primarily a fun read and I am glad I gave it a try. While it lacks the inventiveness of some of Flynn’s other plots I have read and reviewed here, there is plenty to entertain. Still, for those new to the author I might suggest checking out one of his other novels instead.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery is the authority on Brian Flynn and, of course, they pen the introductions found in the Dean Street Press reprints. They describe this one as a ‘fine outing for Bathurst, loads of fun’ and explain why one aspect of this book’s denouement is very unusual if not unique.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests that while some aspects of the plot don’t stand up to more detailed scrutiny, it is another example of ‘Flynn’s mission to simply write good, imaginative and above all entertaining detective fiction’.