Black Agent by Brian Flynn

“Good things of the day begin to droop and drowse,

while night’s black agents to their preys do rouse”

Macbeth, William Shakespeare

At the New Year Social and Dance – on January 22nd, for some reason – in Wavering, Essex, Barbara Marsden disappeared without trace. Despite several search parties, not a trace of her was found. Until a month later, that is, when her distinctive yellow dress is found – being worn by Vera Ferris in a local amateur dramatic performance. But before that can be investigated fully, Vera also disappears…

Enter Anthony Fotherington Bathurst and Inspector Andrew McMorran, and soon the bodies of both girls are discovered – naked, strangled and buried in a bathtub. Convinced that the murderer will strike again, Bathurst finds himself at a loss to even find a hint of a motive. Why would a yellow dress drive someone to murder? Why did the killer apparently steal a bowl of fat from the butcher’s shop on the night of each murder? And what on earth does it have to do with a dancing bear?

On to Brian Flynn’s thirty-ninth-ish novel, and I’m afraid there’s no cover picture for this one – what, you thought that was the real one? In fact, welcome to the pre-eminent (and only) article on the World Wide Web on Black Agent by Brian Flynn. Do feel free to look around because apart from the fact that there was a book written in 1950 of that title by that author, that’s about all you can find out on the internet. When I googled “Black Agent”, most of the results were of the form “Who Is The Black Agent In [INSERT NAME OF GENERIC US FBI SHOW HERE]”. But if this blog post inspires you to be the other person in the world who’s read it, then be quick, as there’s only the one copy on Abebooks and it’s going for significantly more than I paid for this one…

Let’s be clear, first of all. I loved this book. Not quite up there with my favourite of Flynn’s work, Tread Softly, but a strong contender. Bathurst is a charming lead, quite capable of going a decent distance after a theory that turns out to be nonsense – and one of these theories is one of the oddest things I’ve seen in my decades.

The plot keeps moving forwards, back and forth along Bathurst’s theories with a nice set of suspects, and a genuine unsettling feel as Bathurst struggles to make any sense of the murderer’s motives, and we get closer to the likelihood of the killer striking again. Flynn has a lot of fun with a couple of red herrings – Bathurst is one of those sleuths that isn’t infallible, never quite sure what is important and what isn’t until very late in the day.

On the downside – when we get to the finale, we find that it’s not particularly clued and the actual motive… well, hard to discuss it without spoiling it, but there’s a sense of “is that it?” But it does fit and it does work.

I think the best way to summarise my feeling for this one is that I was carefully reading it one chapter at a time, waiting between them because I really didn’t want it to end. Really good fun – so everyone, let’s get the letter-writing campaign to Dean St Press to get Flynn onto their radar…

In the meantime, while it probably isn’t the best clued mystery ever, this is still Highly Recommended.

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