I don’t think I had realised that Nina Bawden had ever written mystery novels, but it seems that she did, in fact her first few novels were mysteries. This novel from 1954 was only her second published novel. The Odd Flamingo while not having quite the depth of character and subtlety of her later more literary works is a quick engaging little mystery, with some flashes of what would come in later novels. There is no doubt that The Odd Flamingo, shows many of the strengths of Nina Bawden’s writing, but it is also apparent that it was written by a young writer, still honing her craft. Nina Bawden however is an excellent storyteller, and that is certainly evident in The Odd Flamingo. The setting of this mystery is definitely one of its strengths, brilliantly atmospheric; Bawden’s seedy world is one that feels very realistic and very 1950’s.
“I had no premonition of disaster. Later I remembered that there had been a bowl of roses on the table by the telephone and that, as I had picked up the receiver, I had been comparing the dead bloom with the clear crimson of a bud from the same bush and wondering whether there was anything that could be done to stop the red roses from blue-ing so badly when they opened fully.
Celia said, “Will,is that you? Oh, thank God. Can you come down to the School?”
I asked her what was the matter and she said, “I can’t tell you on the ‘phone. Please come.”
She sounded both frightened and distraught. It was unlike her.”
The Odd Flamingo is rooted in the world of nightclubs, spivs, drugs and petty criminals, with young women who have taken the wrong path, anxious to escape their dreary existences. The story is narrated by Will Hunt, a lawyer who lives with his mother, and has idolised his friend Humphrey Stone for years. Will is an interesting character although not as deeply explored as I would have expected from Nina Bawden, his feelings for Humphrey are ambiguous, especially as we meet a woman as the story progresses who Will loved years earlier. In setting her novel among the people and places of the heaving London underbelly of the 1950’s Bawden has moved right away from many of the cosy crime novels of the period, all those country house mysteries she must have read herself.
Humphrey Stone is a respected school headmaster, whose wife Celia is visited by a beautiful young girl, Rose Blacker, who announces she is pregnant by Humphrey. Celia is naturally appalled, fearful for her family’s reputation; she immediately turns to Will for help with the delicate situation. Rose produces love letters, written in Humphrey’s unmistakable voice and hand. Will is keen to help, and while speaking to Rose he becomes fascinated and drawn to the strange innocence that he sees in her. However, barely can Will begin to ascertain the exact nature of the situation before a murder looks like taking things to a much darker place. Will begins to question everything he knows about Humphrey, but determined to help him where he can.
Will’s enquires bring Will back to the Odd Flamingo club, a place Will had visited a few times years before with Humphrey. Will had no idea that Humphrey was still a regular, and is shocked to hear that his old friend had been there with Rose and her close friend Jasmine. The Odd Flamingo is frequented by all sorts of unsavoury types, and it is also here that Will runs into his former love Kate. While trying to track down the elusive Humphrey, Will must also run the gauntlet that is Piers Stone, Humphrey’s odious and manipulative half-brother. As Will delves deeper he uncovers some unsavoury truths about some of Rose’s friends and the world that she has been inhabiting.
“There are moments when everything becomes clear and sharply drawn, moments that stand out in memory like three-dimensional figures against a flat background. I can remember now everything about that moment; the exact pinkish colour of the light, the pale patch in the carpet where a stain had been removed, the single cobweb strand that hung from the ceiling and moved gently in the breeze from the window. Humphrey’s back was to the light, his head was tilted towards me at a slightly enquiring angle as though he had just asked a question and was waiting for me to answer it. There was a small smile on his thin mouth, a timid, almost conciliatory smile.”
Will is something of a romantic; he is drawn to Rose and her unhappiness, his faith in his old friend and all he knew of him severely shaken. Several of the characters are destroyed, or have been by the shady world of the Odd Flamingo, but it is Will who seems most affected by these events, the reader gets the impression that Will Hunt will be marked by his experiences. Like Rose, there is something of the innocent in Will, and like Rose, his association with the Odd Flamingo and the events which take place over a few short weeks put an end to that innocence.
This is an enjoyable mystery which could be of interest to readers of Nina Bawden’s later literary novels. Bello books who produce ebooks and print on demand books have a few of these early books available.