Fear and Trembling (Brian Flynn)


Rating: 3 out of 5.

David Somerset, an analytical and manufacturing chemist, has a secret worth one million pounds – a secret that a cabal of mysterious foreigners want, and for which they are ready to murder. The very day Somerset meets them at a country inn, he and his son Geoffrey disappear – never to be seen again alive… In desperation, Somerset’s remaining son Gerald appeals to Anthony Bathurst and Scotland Yard for help. But can Bathurst act in time to save Gerald?

Steve Barge, Brian Flynn’s biggest fan, calls Fear and Trembling “loads of fun… a strong whodunit, with a very clever idea at its heart”. I’m not quite so enthusiastic – Flynn has written better books – but this is an entertaining mystery thriller, with plenty of action and a solid plot behind it all.

Bathurst burgles houses, gets knocked out and tied up, and falls in love with an enigmatic beauty. The investigation gets off to a splendidly Sherlockian start: Bathurst’s deductions from a railway guide whittle a list of 17 towns down to a mere five – an impressive piece of reasoning that recalls the opening of The Valley of Fear.

But there are some longueurs between Chapters VII and XII. This is not an orthodox whodunit, so there are few clues or suspects, or at times, it seems, any progress; at several points, the sleuths are stonewalled. There are too many unproductive searches of offices, the same people are questioned too many times, and obvious leads are not followed up until late. (Such as interviewing Mrs. Somerset.) But once the bloodstain is discovered on the stairs, and Bathurst sits down and analyses the mystery, I was engrossed until the showdown in a French villa.

You should be able to work out the answer before then; I had my suspicions early on (partly, I suppose, due to Steve’s prologue, pointing out that this mystery is as much geminus as it is ingenious), and they were confirmed by the volume of and in the coffin.

Torquemada (Observer) said the ‘surprise’ twist was “almost as familiar as Oliver”, but the Northern Whig was fooled: “The pleasure of the crime-fiction fan in being deceived is at least as great as that of the writer who weaves the plot which deceives him, and the pleasure of the reader of Mr. Brian Flynn’s Fear and Trembling must be of quite abnormal magnitude. For the mystery … is one that may well defy the ingenuity of the most expert explorer of labyrinths to solve.” Still, as Steve says, “the alert reader just might work out what’s going on, and, if they do, feel very pleased with themselves, i.e. the sign of a great mystery”. Good, not great, but I like the sentiment!

I could swear I have read something recently that involved Somerset’s process (ROT13: vzvgngvba qvnzbaqf). Jules Verne, of course, wrote L’Étoile du sud (1884).

One criticism. Dean Street Press has done a wonderful job of resurrecting rare books, but this is bowdlerized. You wouldn’t know, though. Those foreigners? They’re Jews. The original reads:

“They were all short, all of ’em bar one, darkish, and their hair was done in a foreign sort of way. Do you know what I mean? Jewy-lookin’, I should call ’em. Hitler would have fair licked his chops directly he caught sight of ’em.”

The reprint reads:

“They was all short, all of ’em bar one, darkish, and their hair was done in a foreign sort of way. Do you know what I mean? Hitler would have fair licked his chops directly he caught sight of ’em…”

There seems no reason for this, other than a sop to PC sensibilities. Is identifying a character as Jewish (or even “Jewy-lookin’”) automatically anti-Semitic? Besides, it ruins a clue. There are certain honourable professions with which Jews have been associated since the Middle Ages, and which here are involved with Somerset’s secret. Furthermore, if the characters’ Jewishness is obscured, the reader can’t learn that when Anthony Bathurst falls in love (for apparently the first time), he falls in love with a Jewish woman.

I would prefer the text to be kept intact – particularly when the reader’s only chance of reading the original is to pay £545.00 – and a disclaimer along these lines inserted: “This book was published in 1936, and does not reflect contemporary values.” One of these two certainly doesn’t:

The Daily Telegraph, 23 October 1936


Contemporary reviews

Reynolds’s Newspaper (18 October 1936): ROT13: Qnivq Fbzrefrg unq vairagrq n arj jnl bs znxvat flagurgvp qvnzbaqf. Ur jnf zheqrerq, naq fb jrer uvf gjb fbaf. Nu, gung’f gur eho!

Gurer jnf n shareny sbe uvf gjb fbaf; ohg npghnyyl bar bs gurz – well, read the book yourself and see how Anthony Bathurst solved what seemed to be an impenetrable mystery.

Daily Mirror (22 October 1936): [Very good.] An exciting tale of three murders and one murderer.

Observer (Torquemada, 1st November 1936): There are a few weak points in Fear and Trembling, chiefly apparent in the quaint behaviour of certain Hatton Garden merchants; but, on the whole, I think Mr. Brian Flynn comes up to his own quite high standard in a book which certainly gripped my interest on a sleepless night and held it to the end.  The “surprise” twist, promised in the blurb and duly delivered in the last chapter, is almost as familiar as Oliver; but in Fear and Trembling it is justified, for it gives the only logical and satisfying way out.

Northern Whig (2 December 1936): The pleasure of the crime-fiction fan in being deceived is at least as great as that of the writer who weaves the plot which deceives him, and the pleasure of the reader of Mr. Brian Flynn’s Fear and Trembling must be of quite abnormal magnitude. For the mystery of the crime by which David Somerset and one of his sons lost their lives, while another mysteriously disappeared under circumstances which left no doubt as to his fate, is one that may well defy the ingenuity of the most expert explorer of labyrinths to solve. The clues, such as they are, all point one way, a way which, in the closing chapter, proves contrary to the facts! Mr. Bathurst, Mr. Flynn’s sleuth, has never tackled a tougher problem, and has never brought his investigations to a more triumphant conclusion.

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