“Tell me, Doctor, could the wound have been made by the antlers of an angry stag? The possibility intrigues me.”
In life, Robert Foster attracted no notice. A retired civil servant living on a modest pension, he lived quietly in the seaside village of Upchalke with his niece, Winifred. No, there is nothing extraordinary about Robert Foster, until the day he is found murdered in a locked house, the figurine of a stag lying smashed on the floor beside him. The wound in his chest does not seem to match any known weapon, but that is only the first of many riddles facing Anthony Bathurst as he tackles this baffling crime.
The Ebony Stag is a solid detective story that, despite its unassuming manner, keeps throwing one twist after another at the reader. The surprises keep coming throughout the story as Bathurst’s inquiries take him to the village pub, the cinema, and even a Swedish sailing ship. Along the way, he picks up several lively sidekicks, but it remains intriguingly uncertain whether either of them can be trusted.
It becomes clear almost immediately that this will not be a standard cozy mystery. The crime scene is brutal, with the injuries to Foster’s chest and head described in more detail than most golden-age mysteries care to provide. What interests Bathurst the most is the broken statue of the stag, “not knocked down, not trodden on in a struggle as might reasonably have been expected, but smashed of malice aforethought. Smashed to smithereens!” Bathurst begins investigating the dead man’s niece, Winifred Foster, and his friends Skipworth, Burns, and McCracken. However, a chance encounter with a stranger changes the course of his investigation very early on. Hatherley, a former colleague of Foster’s, has dropped by to take a look at the crime scene. He is distressed to learn from Bathurst that the corpse was found with a loose tooth hanging from his mouth—not because of the brutality of the crime, but because Foster was known to have lost all his teeth. Is the dead man really Robert Foster, or is Hatherley lying for reasons of his own?
Questions of identity are extremely important in The Ebony Stag, for both the victim and the suspects. Even Bathurst himself is operating under an assumed identity. What seems incredible to the modern reader is how easily a name and a past can be shrugged off simply by moving a short distance away. Bathurst struggles to locate photographs of the principals in the case, but this is not necessarily suspicious; photography was simply not as ubiquitous as it is now. At times, he is reduced to confirming suspects’ identities by sending written descriptions through the mail. It had also never occurred to me before to wonder how employers could keep track of those receiving pensions using the technology available in 1938, and indeed the process is an imperfect one. There is a certain amount that must be taken on faith. In a murder investigation, however, nothing can be accepted on faith alone.
Bathurst keeps his head through it all, even as conditions in Upchalke become increasingly tense. He receives threatening letters and phone calls; there is even an attempt on his life.
I am speaking to you now to warn you, and for God’s sake, please do not neglect the warning, because I am sending it to you at great risk to myself. Have nothing whatever to do with the Forsyth murder case—nothing at all, do you hear? If you do, you will find yourself in deep waters. Deeper waters than any in which you have previously found yourself.
Far from being worried, Bathurst is excited by these developments, as they show he is on the right track. “It is much easier to disentangle the strands of truth than it is to separate falsehood,” he says.
With Foster being a former civil servant, Brian Flynn does not miss the chance to poke a little fun at self-important bureaucrats. Hatherley often seems more keen to protect the good name of the Borough Treasurer of Easthampton, where he and Foster worked together, than to solve the murder. Eventually his boss Sharpe-Lodge comes to Upchalke to defend the organization. Bathurst is slightly snobbish when it comes to Sharpe-Lodge, who gets everything just a little bit wrong, from his too-flashy jewelry to his “unusually large” business cards. Nonetheless, Sharpe-Lodge provides plenty of amusement with his determination to view, not only the murder case, but the whole world entirely in terms of its relationship to the local government of Easthampton.
Do you know, sir, that Flower—that’s the name of the auditor I mentioned—has more suicides to his credit than any other auditor in the country? He misses nothing—he passes nothing. Not even a compliment. This year alone he’s put his finger on no fewer than eight rogues holding positions of trust. What has been the result? Three shootings, two hangings, one drowning, one self-poisoned by the exhaust of his car, and the other, a rate-collector, absconded—vanished into thin air. I tell you, sir, that S. E. Flower, Esquire, has a record of which he can well feel proud. The ratepayers of this country have much to thank him for.
There is something very satisfying about a book like The Ebony Stag. It is exactly the kind of thing you want to be reading while tucked up warm at home on a rainy night. The whole thing clicks along so smoothly and easily that it’s almost a shock to realize just how many twists and turns there have been and how far the investigation has traveled from where it began. Not a flashy book, but a pleasure to read.
Highly recommended to everyone who’s already familiar with Anthony Bathurst and Brian Flynn!
Not his strongest work, but still very entertaining, and a gripping read.
This is a splendidly told, exciting mystery. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing.
The Ebony Stag is available in ebook and paperback formats from Dean Street Press.