The Horn (Brian Flynn)

Passages we don’t expect in a 1930s detective story: “The Marquis de Sade was obviously, he considered, bisexual and in his earlier years probably more homosexual than heterosexual.”

Flynn’s early books had been rather jolly 1920s japes – country houses, cricket, corpses, and cat burglars, and nothing more threatening than a plug-ugly. So readers of the time must have been disconcerted to find themselves reading about flagellation, torture, orgies, and vice.

Fortunately, Flynn doesn’t go into too much detail (and spares the reader any description of the Marquis’s fiction – bodies are fine, Vile Bodies amusing, but some things are simply vile). In fact, The Horn is one of Brian Flynn’s best books so far. It is another nod to “The Speckled Band”, as editor Steve Barge points out: “History exults in repetition. What was, again shall be! Shades of Stoke Moran and Dr. Roylott!” But this time no giant flying Sri Lankan leeches.

Some months before his wedding, on an oppressively hot summer afternoon, young Mark Kenriston went for a walk to the village – and was never seen again. His sister moves into Mark’s room, and hears “a curious pitter-patter of feet” under her bed; on another night, an animal rushes across her face. (Given the horseracing background, I leapt to the conclusion that it was a miniature pony. I was wrong.) In the night is heard the blowing of a gigantic horn… Fearing she is in deadly peril, her fiancé consults Anthony Bathurst…

The Horn is a swift and sinister tale, almost as urgent and tense as a John Dickson Carr novel. At the same time, it bubbles with high spirits; it is clever, witty, and erudite. A scientist is interested in the esoterica of puppetry; there are pagan survivals (‘Baal Fires’); and Bathurst looks up De Sanquier, Féré, Moll, and the Archaeologia Aeliana. And this time Flynn plays fair, too.

The aloe may have generously distributed its dust, but Flynn throws dust in the reader’s eye, scattering suspicion everywhere. The seasoned reader, I think, will suspect the murderer early on, but may well change his mind. I was onto X, but dismissed them altogether in Chapter XXVII; then I was quite confident ROT13 gur plavpny frpergnel had done it. The scheme is quite ingenious; the main gambit deflects suspicion, but there are also hidden alibis and a really effective use of an old dodge (ROT13: gur tenzbcubar). Holmes foxed a diamond thief, and a more modern reader might also be fooled.

Contemporary reviews

The Guardian (Milward Kennedy, 4 July 1934):

The limitation of suspects in a detective story is as desirable and as difficult as the limitation of armaments. The author has perhaps two reasons to desire it. It is better fun to “play fair” and to give the reader x possible criminals and y clues and to ask him to solve the equation than to follow ill-defined tracks which lead through China and Peru to a character first mentioned on page 250. Secondly, “realism” seems too often to require that the detective shall interview all the possibles, and descriptions of under-housemaids tend to pall.

The Horn seems meant to be a detective story with a thrill. It fails to observe the classic rules, and me at least it failed to thrill. The limitation of suspects is a matter of convention rather than of logic. It is not particularly hard to guess the villain-designate, but the reader is not let into the secrets, such as they are, of the detective, Anthony Bathurst, who strikes me as an unconvincing ghost from a turning off Baker Street. I found his tinge of superficial erudition, manifested in constant quotation, most irritating.

Times Literary Supplement (12 July 1934):

This is a rather curious story dealing with a descendant of the Marquis de Sade. The sudden disappearance of Mark Kenriston, the eerie sounds of horn-blowing at midnight, the slithering shape of some strange animal across the bed, at first look like the glimpse of the obvious. But to Anthon Bathurst the details appear to be the work not of a casual murderer, but of one of those people who, having indulged in flagellation and blood-lust murder once and got away with it, begin to regard it as the natural and proper instrument to use in the furthering of their own ends. ROT13: Univat fhpprffshyyl tbg evq bs gur obql bs Znex Xraevfgba ol qvfcbfvat bs vg va n “Onny Sver” ba n avtug jura obasverf jrer orvat yvg guebhtubhg gur jubyr pbhagelfvqr, Whyvna Fxrar frg gb jbex gb evq uvzfrys bs uvf jvsr, Whyvrg Xraevfgba, ol cynpvat ure obhaq unaq naq sbbg va n furq fnghengrq jvgu crgeby naq gura frggvat vg nyvtug ba nabgure avtug jura obasverf jrer orvat yvg gb pryroengr na napvrag phfgbz. The criminal was undoubtedly a sexual pervert, and the progress of satisfying his insane lusts is related with considerable excitement and detail. On the whole his motives are mercenary, while the other characters are unpleasing and small-natured people without glamour or a touch of the heroic. The book is well constructed and well written, and the deductions of Anthony Bathurst may be recommended to those who have a keen eye for the unexpected and unusual.

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