Diabolic Candelabra – E R Punshon
I seem to on a bit of a run of reading books with unappealing titles. Diabolic Candelabra, published initially in 1941 and now reissued for a modern readership by the splendid Dean Street Press, although relevant to the plot line, is a bit of a clunker, you have to admit, and not one designed to persuade anyone browsing the shelves of a bookshop in the hope of inspiration to pick it up. By then, though, Ernest Punshon was a well-established author, even if now he is languishing in ill-deserved obscurity, and this was the seventeenth outing out of an eventual 32, for his detective creation, Inspector Bobby Owen.
I have to feel sorry for Owen. There is a war on, he has recently transferred to the Wychshire police and is inundated with work. On a rare day off he is persuaded by his wife, Olive, to take a walk into the gloomy, wild Wychwood to hunt down the woman who is supplying the local baker’s with an unusual and appealing flavouring for some chocolate sweets that sell like hot cakes. This is not the usual opening for a story of this nature but after getting some information about the vicinity from the local police sergeant, Owen finds himself plunged into the centre of a perplexing mystery with two seemingly disparate strands.
Owen soon discovers that there is a strange and eccentric man who lives a hermit-like existence in the woods, who doesn’t take kindly to strangers, who brandishes an axe at interlopers, who has a long-running feud with the local doctor, and who is the source of the strange chocolate flavouring as well as quack medicines and, possibly, a cure for cancer. However, he seems to have disappeared as well as the axe, his hut has been turned over, but there is no sign of a body.
The second strand to the story is the loss of some heirlooms, two paintings allegedly by El Greco and the eponymous candelabras, reputedly by Cellini. The family, down on their luck, are keen to recover them to augment their dwindling fortunes. There are a couple of strangers asking questions about the artefacts. Where are they and what has happened to them and why the sudden interest in them?
As the plot unfolds, the disappearance of the hermit and the attempts to recover the objects d’art increasingly become intertwined and Punshon does a fine job pulling it all together. Although there are twelve suspects in all and much of the book is taken up following Owen working methodically through his list, I had an inkling of the likely culprit relatively early on, even though I was struggling to see the motivation. That didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book.
It wouldn’t be a Punshon without a set piece at the end, one in which Owen has his work cut out to come out on top. And we meet some well-drawn, unusual and entertaining characters, including a feral child, Loo, who communes with the wood’s wildlife – Punshon just teeters on the right side of the bonkers at times – a doctor who seems to have had left his bedside manner behind and some shifty salesmen.
Punshon’s text is sprinkled with wit and some acerbic comments on capitalism. He also paints a compelling picture of a mysterious wood, with just enough gothic touches to conjure up the atmosphere without descending into a pastiche of the genre. It was also interesting how life in the countryside seemed to go on as normal, even though there was a war on.
When I started the book, I wondered where it was leading to. It was an entertaining enough story in the end, but it did not seem as cohesive a piece of work as some of the other Punshon books I have read. That said, I would recommend it.