The Sussex Cuckoo (1935) by Brian Flynn

I've noted in past reviews that one of the most attractive features of Brian Flynn's detective fiction is the shift from style to style in each novel, while remaining true to the traditions of the Golden Age detective story. So one book can be a courtroom drama or a locked room mystery and the next a pulp-style throwback to the Gothic turn-of-the-century thrillers. Just look at the tags from the last handful of Flynn reviews, "Crossover" (The Case of the Painted Lady, 1940), "Dying Message" (The Case of the Faithful Heart, 1939), "Espionage" (Black Edged, 1939) and "Locked Room Mysteries" (The Ebony Stag, 1938). The subject of today's review is simply a good, "beautifully mysterious and thrilling" whodunit. 

The Sussex Cuckoo (1935) is Flynn's seventeenth title about his series-detective, Anthony Bathurst, which begins with our detective reading a cryptically-worded notice in the Times Agony Column, "ITCHUL. The wedges are fixed for the Sussex Cuckoo. Hurry if you would be in time. Even then I fear that you may be too late. Terms as arranged" – signed "NEHEMIAH." Anthony Bathurst, always attracted to the bizarre, reads a "hint of tragic happenings to come" in the cryptic message and perhaps even "the genesis of a crime." A prophetic foreboding when a telegram arrives from Inspector Andrew MacMorran, of New Scotland Yard, to go to a house named 'Redmaynes' in Little Oseney. The homeowner is a botanist, James Wynyard Frith, who has appealed directly to Yard for protection from "a serious danger" as he evidently "has no faith in the local police." Since he's in the neighborhood of Little Oseney, MacMorran asks Bathurst to check out the problem and report back.

It turns out James Frith has been receiving flowery-worded, but undeniably, threatening letters to stop persisting in his "infamous conduct." The sixth and last letter ended with "in spite of the five warnings, you have persisted! To what end? Your own! For you will die on Saturday," but Frith tells Bathurst he hasn't the slightest idea to what the letters refer. Bathurst is a keen student of history and can read the Jacobine theme running through the messages, which immediately reveals what might be behind it. Frith is selling an antique chest that belonged to his grandmother and the content is a treasure trove to Jacobite collectors, which already attracted six potential buyers from all over the world. So he advises him to let the five disappointed collectors know and see the one who bought the chest. If the threatening letters pertain to the chest, the change of owners should place Frith "outside the danger zone."

Three days later, Bathurst reads in the newspaper Frith had unexpectedly died under mysterious and somewhat unusual circumstances. Hilda Frith had awakened early in the morning to find his bed empty and the butler eventually discovers Frith's body on the lawn, dressed in his pajamas, but no signs of foul. Frith suffered from an inflamed big toe, caused by the wearing of new shoes, which is likely how he contracted the tetanus germ that killed him. So his passing is recorded as a natural death, but Bathurst believes his death is "anything but cool and calculated murder." There's ample reason to carry on an unofficial investigation as Hilda tells him the Jacobite collection is no longer in the house nor can she trace any payment, cash or cheque, to her husband, but a little bit of money is found in a very unusual place – two silver coins hidden in the heels of Frith's bedroom slippers. And then there's the potential suspects to consider. Such as the six collectors from the four corners of the world, M. Paul Dormoy, Herr Otto Bauer, the Hon. Terence Lonergan, Alan Lochiel, Frank Q. Allison and Adam Strong, who visited Frith two days before his death to get possession of the historical relics. They're not the only potential suspects he has to consider. Add the cryptically-worded notice in the Times and Bathurst has more than enough work to do before he can unravel this cunningly-woven plot.

So, as you can see, The Sussex Cuckoo is a whodunit, pure and simple, but one that took its cue from its American, not British, counterparts. Nick Fuller, of The Grandest Game in the World, wrote in his 2020 review The Sussex Cuckoo "reads like an English counterpart" of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen. I agree. Flynn even references Philo Vance and Ellery Queen, but the whole plot smacks of all things Elleryana. Everything from the nationalities of the six collectors to unearthing the hidden meaning in cryptically-worded messages, while Bathurst's ready-knowledge of etymology and linguistics (a convenient skill set) mirrors the many talents of Philo Vance. Nick also called The Sussex Cuckoo an "object lesson in misdirection" and the odorless red herrings Flynn serves his reader here is another strong hint he had been reading Ellery Queen at the time. However, while the story has distinctly American flavor, Vance and Queen are not the only detectives Flynn alludes to throughout the story.

Flynn was a Sherlock Holmes fanboy and The Sussex Cuckoo is covered in the obligatory Holmesian touches. The most obvious one being the allusions to "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual" (1893) and James Frith appears to have been modeled on Dr. Leon Sterndale from "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" (1910), but Flynn also references some of the Great Detectives lesser-known, pulpier contemporaries – like Sexton Blake and Hawkshaw the Detective. Bathurst quotes Baron le Sage from The Mystery of the Skeleton Key (1919) by Bernard Capes ("the really clever murder is the murder which looks like "accident" or "natural death.") So while The Sussex Cuckoo is a straight, American flavored whodunit, it still showed his association with the (British) pulps and his alliance to the Doylean era. One of those little details that never fails to fascinate me.

So with two categories of suspects (collectors and non-collectors), a nigh-perfect murder, coded messages, strange clues and bizarre coincidences, Bathurst is unable to remember "a case that demanded so much patience and perseverance." It would not be until a second, undeniable murder is committed that a ray of light begins to break through. A murder callously describes as "extremely illuminating." Slowly, but surely, Flynn begins to work towards the solution while simultaneously suggesting a false-solution. I thought that demonstrated his well-balanced skill set as both a storyteller and plotter, which was only marred by the rushed and abrupt ending. Something should have been cut in order to give explanation a few extra pages of breathing room, but, otherwise, The Sussex Cuckoo can be counted among my ten, or so, favorite Flynn novels. I really enjoyed it!

The detective story tends to be a three-way tug-of-war between storytelling, characterization and plotting. Everyone has his own preferences and alliances. But when it comes to the tradition detective story, the writers who found a balance between the three tend to be best and most fondly remembered. Flynn proved to be an exception to that rule and perhaps he was a victim of his own creativity, but it's still astonishing how thoroughly he had been forgotten until Steve began fanboying about him back in 2017. I don't even remember him being mentioned on the old GAD Yahoo group or the JDCarr messageboard. So his resurrection in 2019 was long overdue and more than deserved!

No comments:

Post a Comment