Like many mystery novels, Flashpoint opens up with a familiar face returning home to a small town after having spent years away doing some shenanigans. The familiar face in this scenario is one Gordon Drew, who has returned to the small town of Halingford after an absence of eight years, and he immediately begins to go around the town, reminiscing about the days when he was a constant presence in the area. He runs into several old (and new) residents and manages to land a job with one Dr. Carruther, a job spurred onto him by an old friend (and love interest). His arrival is soon to be marred however, as a local fishmonger and grocer named Oscar Bilkin receives a threatening letter in the mail that states: GET OUT BEFORE TOMORROW. YOU ARE ALL IN DANGER. While Bilkin is somewhat spooked by the letter and reports it to the police, he doesn’t evacuate the shop, and the following day, disaster strikes. A large block of ice is delivered to the Bilkin shop, with it meant for use in preventing the fish from spoiling, and upon it’s delivery, a sudden explosion occurs within the building, destroying it and killing Oscar while injuring his wife and daughter. This explosion is soon classified as a semi impossible crime, with it seemingly being impossible for the explosion to have occurred through means such as small mechanical device or something frozen in the ice. Several other letters are soon dispatched to various locations across Halingford, and to the police’s dismay, several more quasi-impossible arsons and explosions occur. This all leads to the superintendent of the police department recruiting Dr. Carrthur for help with the case, and as a murder and disappearance also occur, his help is much needed.
Flashpoint is an interesting little specimen, and it surprised me in several ways. John Russell Fearn is well known for his pulpy writing and plotting style, but in this novel, those two aspects were nearly nonexistent. Instead, Fearn writes very fluidly, with gorgeous descriptions and constant changes in narration and perspective, with several small scenes from different characters all playing out in the same chapter, something that reminded me of the great Christianna Brand. The plot itself is very realistic for it’s composition, and doesn’t become too ridiculous or unrealistic as many plots by pulp writers do. Instead, it flows clearly and steadily, with excellent pacing and placing of clues, accompanied by an ingenious central plot.
The quasi-impossible crimes here are reminiscent of those in Paul Halter’s The Fires of Hell, except Fearn manages to treat the situation with much better solutions than those proposed by the former. They all revolve around interesting scientific gimmicks or tricks, which are eminently satisfying as solutions due to them being both practical and simple enough to be understood or even solved by the common reader. The first situation is very clearly presented and has a brilliant trick behind it all, with it revolving around an idea that could be very easy to see through for some while being completely opaque for others. The second and third situations are also resolved satisfying, though they are a bit rushed due to their inclusion in the latter half of the story, and the third situation also has a flaw in it that could very easily have messed up the plan of the culprit.
The culprit’s identity and motive equate to what are probably the jewels in the crown of this novel. The identity is a decent shock, playing with the least likely character troupe while maintaining the visibility of the culprit. You could deduce the culprit if you take into account all the clues and some intuition, though they are sufficiently hidden to the point that most people likely won’t figure out who they are and what their motive is. The motive is startling, with it being a unique twist on an age old one. It truly showcases just how cruel the killer is, while adding a bit of humanity and emotion to the stories very action packed finale. It creates both resounding sympathy and unending hate towards certain parties involved, and helps lead to a moment where what can only be described as pure justice is administered. The motive also has several aspects of legality to it, causing it to have a delightful bit of trivia behind it all.
The setting of Halingford and of Post War England as a whole is utilized to perfection throughout the story. It helps create the characters while also helping in the creation of the plot, with it being the cause of many of the events that unfold throughout the story. It creates a dynamic throughout the story, one that gives the reader a real sense of the time that is being told at, and unlike other stories, this one has a setting that feels like it very well did exist in the past, especially during the time period. You get the quintessential small town aura from it, but you also get this wider feeling of recovery and despair that arises from WWII with it not being pushed into the background and instead being accepted as part of the whole that is Flashpoint.
Another interesting little tidbit is the workings of the two main detectives in the story, Superintendent Denning and Dr. Carruther’s. Both contribute to the solution in their own ways, with Denning providing the details of the investigation plus culprit and motive, while the good doctor contributes to the more scientific elements of the crimes. They work seamlessly together throughout the plot, with each having their own moments and sections, negating the possibility of one being in the shadow of the other. I was engrossed by the character of Dr. Carruther, and found him to be particularly interesting in his peculiarities and motivations, with a fun backstory to boot!
The first book I ever read by John Russell Fearn turned out to be a success. It has an ingenious plot and explores the scientific branch of impossible crimes, creating fun scenarios with interesting solutions that satisfy and invoke the mind to figure them out before the resolution. It also comes equipped with genuine character and setting, creating a book the flows with unadulterated fluidity while also providing the reader with a fun and fast paced read. I’m sure the John Russell Fearn likely has much more pulp in most of his other novels than the amount present here, but this was a great introduction to his work and writing style and I eagerly await the day I dive once more into the depths of his backlog! A rating of 4.5/5 and promises of more science based detective fiction in the form of Isaac Asimov books next time on this blog.