Invisible Death (1929) by Brian Flynn

Invisible Death (1929) is the sixth novel about Brian Flynn's Holmesian gentleman detective, Anthony Bathurst, which has the distinct honor of being the most unconventional, but very memorable, entry in the series – written and structured like a turn-of-the-century shilling shocker. I think Flynn intended to write the book as an homage to Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915), but ended up being more reminiscent of Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1927). Only Invisible Death has much more consistency than the patchwork plotting and story-telling of The Big Four.

Anthony Bathurst receives a letter from Constance Whittaker, a cousin of Diana Prendergast from The Murders Near Mapleton (1929), who pleads for him to come down to Shallowcliff Hall in Lacashire. The letter strongly hinted that "something very dark and very sinister" had placed her husband, Major Guy S. Whittaker, in "grave danger."

So, since he never lets a cry for help go unheeded, Bathurst sets out for Shallowcliff Hall, but, the moment he sets foot in Liverpool, he finds there are some nasty-looking shadows close on his tail.

There's a man with a withered arm. A fat, silky-voiced slug of a man. A huge man with a, dirty, brown-beard. Lastly, a man with mutilated lips who turns out to be the leader of the group. Bathurst later learns these men are what remains of a Russian society, The Silver Troika, who were decimated by Major Whittaker during a special in the Great War – returning to England with the documents, papers and minute-books of the society. Now they want it back! Since the favorite afternoon pastime of the Troika is the same as the evening occupation, namely murder, only "a trifle more so," Bathurst decides to enlist the help of an old acquaintance.

Peter Daventry is the young lawyer who brought Bathurst into The Case of the Twenty-Two Black (1928), but here, to fit occasion, Flynn transformed him into one of those posh, smart-aleck men of action. A handy person to have around when you find yourself in the middle of a chase thriller.

Bathurst and Daventry attempt to sneak their way up to Shallowcliff Hall unseen and have to go through several middle-men, give them passwords and cross Ugford Moor, locally known as The Knype, into the eerie, foggy Little Knype Wood. Needless to say, this is quite a departure from the more conventional novels that preceded it, like The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928), but I thought it was very well done. And an excellent premise for what is about to happen!

Shallowcliff Hall eventually comes under siege by the Silver Troika, but, before they can get their murderous hands on Major Whittaker, he suddenly drops dead without anyone being nowhere near him and a post-mortem reveals he had been cleverly murdered – poisoned with a "tincture of aconite." Only question is how the poison could have been administrated without being seen. This poses a two-sides problem: on the one hand, Bathurst has to deal with the Silver Troika, while on the other hand he has to figure out who poisoned Major Whittaker. And how. A pretty and unusual puzzle comprising of such pieces as a stolen letter and the presence of an American entomologist, Horace Garland-Isherwood, who has the habit of surreptitiously sneaking around the garden.

The only plot-thread here that can really be discussed, without spoilers, is the impossible murder, but there's one part about the siege of the Silver Troika that needs to be highlighted.

There's a brief, uncharacteristic torture-scene in which the Troika try to extract from Major Whittaker's batman, Neville, with a so-called "Persuader." A tool that left Neville's right thumb "a piece of red, raw pulp." You practically never find this kind of gory violence in the work of writers associated with the traditional detective story and, if you ignore the rare third-degreeing at the hands of the police, the only other example I can think of is Rex Stout's The Golden Spiders (1953) – in which Archie uses some physical persuasion to make someone talk. Stout had the excuse of being an American. So this is just a very small example of how unusual a mystery this one really is.

However, you're not here to read about the professional proclivities of a bunch of homicidal villains who were plucked from the pages of a dime pulp. You're here for the impossible crime! Why else would you come here?

Steve Barge, the Puzzle Doctor of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, who wrote the introductions for these new Dean Street Press editions said in his 2017 review that the poisoning method, as far as knew, "original for the time." This is kind of true. The trick has been used since 1929, one example can be found in a late '90s episode from the Dutch TV-series Baantjer, but there's a little-known short story from 1928 that used a similar poisoning-trick. Nonetheless, the book may be a first in another department.

Invisible Death intriguingly merged the impossible crime story with the dime thriller by setting it in a house under siege by criminals. An original premise more famously used in T.H. White's Darkness at Pemberley (1932) and Carter Dickson's The Unicorn Murders (1935), but Flynn's Invisible Death was there first.

Admittedly, the book is, plot-wise, the lightest so far encountered, but what it lacked in complexity was made up by the sheer joy of the story-telling, the weirdness of the plot and the evil, pulp-style villains – something that would have sunk it in the hands of a lesser writer. This is how you book evil foreign heels! As usually, Flynn's undying love for Sherlock Holmes bleeds through the pages and it's starting to have its effect on me. I now want to reread The Sign of Four or The Hound of the Baskervilles before the year draws to a close.

So, in closing, I highly recommend Invisible Death to everyone who already has read some of Flynn's conventional detective novels, because he'll be giving you something completely different here that worked surprisingly well. Invisible Death is easily one of the most fun detective stories that I have read this year.


  1. Love your blog and enjoy your point of view on Golden Age.
    One thing I would suggest is the exceptional popularity
    of Edgar Wallace at this time. His thrillers were everywhere
    and Flynn may have wished to cash in with his audience.

    Chris Wallace

    1. Thanks!

      Flynn has stated himself the Sherlock Holmes stories were his main source of inspiration, but also spoke highly of other, early Golden Age writers and detective-characters. One of them being Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.

      So I don't believe Invisible Death was intended as an Edgar Wallace-style moneymaker. And if Wallace influenced Invisible Death, it was probably by proxy through Christie's The Big Four.

  2. The fair play detective story and the thriller are fairly distinct art forms, as Knox pointed out with his "no Chinamen" rule. I think it is very uncommon to see the two forms combined successfully in a single novel, so congratulations to Flynn. For some reason, the British seem to write the best thrillers in the world. I don't think anyone ever did it better than Fleming in Goldfinger or Rohmer in President Fu Manchu.

    1. "For some reason, the British seem to write the best thrillers in the world."

      Funnily enough, some believe Americans write better detective stories than the British, but the pure detective story is usually associated with the British and the thriller with the Americans. Is this why normal people find us fans tiresome?

    2. If these people can find better American writers of thrillers than Fleming or Rohmer, I will conceded their point.

  3. Your review is spot on. The first part is entirely thriller/shocker rather than Detection. And the second half is a mix. Some of the characters require one to suspend disbelief, and view the book as a bit of a farce. But, as you note, the whole thing is most enjoyable for GAD enthusiasts.

    1. I suppose you're revering to the members of the Silver Troika? They're certainly an odd bunch, but I they were clearly intended to be homages to some of the more colorful characters/villains found in the Sherlock Holmes stories (e.g. The Sign of Four and "The Man With the Twisted Lip"). Even the butterfly catcher sneaking around the garden was a nod to The House of the Baskervilles. So I had no problem going along with the fantastical yarn Flynn was spinning. :D

      Invisible Death is a shocker with substance and tremendously enjoyable one at that!

    2. Not only the members of the Silver Troika but also the character running around with a butterfly net and talking as if he's on speed. The latter's speech reminded me a bit of Bertie Wooster, actually. I definitely agree that all these slightly over the top characters are not meant to be taken seriously. Once one realizes that and approaches the book a bit as a farce, it is indeed quite enjoyable.

      I had a similar experience watching Forrest Gump. The scene where he loses he knee braces running through the fields in slow motion with the majestic music of Charriots of Fire playing in the background was so ridiculously cliche that It suddenly struck me that this movie was actually all an over the top farce, after which I started enjoying it tremendously.

    3. "Not only the members of the Silver Troika but also the character running around with a butterfly net and talking as if he's on speed."

      Well, if you put it like that, it probably would've been funnier if they had found Horace lying in the garden, smacked out of his bin, who then has to spend the rest of the story hallucinating on a sofa in the background. No explanation given as to who he is or how he ended up in the garden. He just there in background muttering gibberish. ;D

  4. Pulp magazine fiction of the Golden Age is overflowing with torture scenes, but I guess you were discounting that portion of the genre when you used the term "traditional detective fiction." I include private eye fiction of any type in that umbrella category. Kendell Foster Crossen had an outlandish torture scene in THE INVISIBLE MAN MURDERS. I wrote about it on my blog.

    This book has a lot in common with THE TRIPLE BITE which I am trying to finish now. There is an mysterious murder means that borders on supernatural, Gothic excess, criminals barging into a house looking for a hidden treasure, bound and gagged prisoners in their own home, among them. But the book is so damn talky with monologue after monologue. Sometimes there are page long paragraphs that make me feel like I'm reading something by Mrs. Henry Wood! The other unusual aspect of the book is the woman narrator. While she is outspoken and spunky at times Cecilia tends to reflect an antiquated feminine worldview and conventional thinking for a 1930s woman character that also made me think I was reading Mrs. Wood.

    1. Yeah, I know its more common in the pulp thrillers/private eye fiction of the time. I remember a particularly harrowing scene from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, but very uncommon in the work of traditional mystery writers. It just stood out like it did in Anthony Abbot's The Murder of Geraldine Foster and Rex Stout's The Golden Spiders.

      You mean The Triple Bite has more of this? Sign me up! Downsides you listed makes it sound like early Agatha Christie with a Conan Doyle-era plot. Sounds like a winner to me!

    2. It's worth reading for the solution alone. Right out of the weird menace pulps! I pegged the culprit by the midpoint and solved the first half of the riddle/cryptogram instantly. Very proud of myself, but it's not all that difficult to do either.

      He also does the weird narration shift thing in TRIPLE BITE. Cecilia is the first person narrator who writes about scenes where she wasn't present. Uses her imagination and "later" reports described by the key players in those essentially third person scenes. Very strange that he did this repeatedly.

    3. "Cecilia is the first person narrator who writes about scenes where she wasn't present."

      You know, by itself, this is not necessarily a problem, if the narrator is not an unreliable one (i.e. the murderer) and perhaps a line explaining the narrator was filled on what happened when he/she wasn't present. I remember Christopher Bush did this once when he began to experiment with first-person narration (it might have been in The Case of the Murdered Major).

      "It's worth reading for the solution alone. Right out of the weird menace pulps!"

      Sounds like pure, pulpy fun!