The Conqueror Inn – E R Punshon
This is the first of Ernest Punshon’s Bobby Owen books that I have read, although it is the eighteenth in the series, one of a tranche of books by this sadly neglected writer that have been reissued for a modern audience by the indefatigable Dean Street Press. First published in 1943 it is an atmospheric thriller that shines some light on the attitudes and prejudices that were alive and kicking during the Second World War.
The Conqueror Inn is supposedly one of the oldest pubs in the country and sits in splendid isolation on the top of a moor in a bleak and austere part of the country. The landlord and his daughter seem to go out of their way not to attract customers and but for an American serviceman rarely has guests. For a lonely spot on a minor road, though, there is a surprising amount of traffic, principally lorries, which use the road to circumnavigate the traffic on the main road. At least, that is the story.
The story opens with the laconic landlord making a phone call to the police reporting the discovery of a wooden box stuffed with £1 notes, around £2,000 in all which was a phenomenal sum at the time. Disinterested in the amount or the fate of the loot, he goes on to inform Owen that he things there is a shallow grave in a field a mile or so away from the pub. Owen and his team dig up the area and find the body of a youngish man whose face has been so badly caved in that identification is impossible.
Who was the young man? How did he meet his fate? And what, if anything, has he to do with the box of money that no one seems in a hurry to reclaim? Along the way we have a story of haulage firms, black marketeering, espionage, treachery, blackmail, jealousy, and love.
Owen is nothing if not thorough in his investigations. He even treats the reader by way of conversations with his fellow police officers and his wife, Olive, to his thought processes and his theories as to what precisely happened and whodunit. This too can add to the enormous number of red herrings in the story, but it is interesting to see how his mind is working. The resolution of the mystery is clever and comprehensive. There are no loose ends and what is a complex puzzle is resolved satisfactorily.
Punshon paints the gloomy, austere atmosphere of this remote part of England well. His style is elegantly straightforward and he moves the story on with just the right level of urgency without losing sight of the fact that all pieces of this sprawling puzzle need to join together. His female characters are characterised as strong women and play an important part in the story.
In addition to an intriguing story line with a gothic twist, Punshon lays bare some of the prejudices that were endemic at the time. There is an Irish connection, the IRA, and the belief that they are fifth columnists collecting sensitive industrial information to hand over to the Germans. Central to the storyline too is the attitudes towards and the treatment of members of the military suffering from shell shock or what we would now call post traumatic stress disorder. The fear was that in the hands of the military the condition would either not be recognised or certainly not treated with any degree of sympathy or understanding.
I enjoyed the book and will certainly read some more of Bobby Owen’s adventures. There are plenty of them to get through!