Flynn is an uneven writer (some of the early books are preposterous or ponderous), but this is one of his best: lively, clever, and one wants to know whodunnit.
Anthony Bathurst reads a cryptic message in the newspaper, and predicts murder before long; Scotland Yard sends him to visit the philosopher Frith, who has received equally cryptic death threats. Two days later, Frith is found dead on the lawn – but from tetanus. Was it murder? If so, what role did the Jacobite treasure (including the old crown of English kings) play in Frith’s murder? What does the butler know that he isn’t telling? And what of the Brazilian coins in Frith’s shoes?
The Sussex Cuckoo is an object lesson in misdirection. Flynn leads the reader by the nose; he serves up red herrings that give off no odour of fish; and we swallow them whole, hook, line, and sinker. We are so confident that we have spotted the guilty party (or parties) that we pay almost no attention to the real culprit. At the end, we are skilfully filleted.
The revelation comes a little abruptly; Flynn detonates his firework, and ends the book a page later. We could do with a fuller explanation of how Bathurst spotted the criminals, and what clues proved their guilt. Glancing back through the book, we can see the characters’ reactions and attitudes, but I miss the detective’s analysis.
Contemporary reviewers resented being duped; The Daily News was “a little irritated”, while the Birmingham Daily Gazette thought “the effect is rather as though the author were jeering at you: ‘Sold again!’”. But the British preferred straightforward detective stories, methodically solved by Scotland Yard; American critics would have appreciated it more.
In fact, Flynn proceeded from Conan Doyle, but (after following the Humdrums and thrillers), he seems to have developed into a puzzle plot writer. He invokes “Philo Queen and Ellery Vance” (Ch. VI) as exemplars of the “beautifully mysterious and thrilling”, and this reads like an English counterpart.
Six collectors, all with peculiar characteristics; Bathurst’s analysis of the note and of the collectors’ nationalities in Chapter XV is modelled on similar passages in Queen:
“There were six candidates for your husband’s collection, weren’t there? Left him, mind you, by his grandmother. They were – in alphabetical order – Allison, Bauer, Dormoy, Lochiel, Lonergan and Strong. Taking them in the same order, they were, nationally, American, German, French, Scotch, Irish and English. Note the nationalities, Mrs. Frith. I say that advisedly, because in that message we have – inter alia – Uncle Sam, Herr Congreve, Monsieur Bathurst, Bonnie Scotland, Ould Oireland, and the Roast Beef of Old England.”
Bathurst is a polylingual polymath, who can run through “the derivations of etymology … French, Greek, Old German, Saxon, Danish, Frisian, Latin, Hebrew” while out walking, not (as you or I would) by poring over dictionaries.
Your great detectives must have a working knowledge of a score of languages, including Sanskrit and Akkadian for good measure; if they ever tire of crime, they could become professors of linguistics.
Daily News (Philip Hewitt-Myring, 1 July 1935): Mr. Brian Flynn draws a red whale across the trail in The Sussex Cuckoo, and the reader may feel a little irritated on learning in the last few pages of the book that all his cerebration has been in vain and the murder was quite a simple little affair after all.
But plenty of ingenuity has gone to the making of the story; and if Mr. Flynn’s detective, Anthony Bathurst, who is of the school of Mr. Fortune, though in another class, were a little less sprightly he would be very good company.
Birmingham Daily Gazette (W.H.G., 3 July 1935): In a crime novel it is always advisable to arrange a good side-track along which suspicion may stray until the moment comes to stop the nonsense and reveal “who really did it.” In The Sussex Cuckoo, Mr. Brian Flynn has produced a side-track which bears every appearance of being the main path to the establishment of guilt.
That is well enough in its way and it causes a good deal of excitement; but the effect at the end, when the ultimate revelation comes and you find that all the excitement has been about nothing—the effect is rather as though the author were jeering at you “Sold again!” However, his detective, Anthony Bathurst, is an engaging young man and a pleasant specimen of the sleuth’s profession to be bamboozled by.
Times Literary Supplement (4 July 1935): Anthony Bathurst, the author’s detective, investigates a crime that is almost clueless, and looks at first sight to be without motive or reason. It is only by chance that he decides to probe into the apparent natural death of James Wynyard Frith. His search leads him to a group of six people, all of whom had been anxious to purchase from Frith a valuable collection of Royal Stuart relics, and whose characters are so unimpeachable that Bathurst’s friend, Congreve, is inclined to call the hunt off. The hunt, however, was not called off, with surprising results to all concerned, and not least to Congreve himself. The plot verges on the fantastic, but the story is told so well and the characters are so good that the reader is willing to believe it. The introduction of the Stuart relics is ingenious, though the actual motives are finally revealed as far removed from the collection itself. With the aid of a second murder very opportunely presented, Bathurst begins to see light and is not long before he identifies the criminals. As usual, they make a small mistake which betrays them.