Secrets Can’t Be Kept – E R Punshon
Published in 1944 and set in wartime Wychshire, this is Punshon’s twentieth novel to feature the adventures of his police detective creation, Inspector Bobby Owen. Ernest Punshon is a sadly neglected writer, recently brought out of obscurity thanks to the sterling efforts of Dean Street Press, who has the happy knack of writing skilfully plotted, atmospheric mysteries laced with elements of humour. This is one of the best of his that I have read.
Bobby is weighed down with the paperwork that the increased wartime regulations have imposed on him and is short staffed. He is visited at the station one day by Ned Bloom, a young man with a club foot. He tells Owen that he has important information to disclose but that it will come at a price. He wants a job as a detective as he has a penchant for ferreting out secrets. As we are in a world before equal opportunities, Owen points out that Bloom is not physically qualified to join the force. Bloom leaves in high dudgeon.
Later that day the police station receives three phone calls, all purportedly from his mother, enquiring whether Bloom had visited the station. Owen suspects something may have happened to him and has a pang of conscience for not taking him seriously. As he pursues his investigations Owen enters a community full of secrets and has to rely on working out relationships rather than on material clues.
Much of the action centres around the Pleezur Tea House, run by Bloom’s mother, a strange woman whose manner is off-putting to her customers. There is an artist who has no discernible artistic talent but claims to have a London agent, to be on familiar terms with Augustus John and proudly shows Owen a painting which he claims to be his finest yet, an atmospheric scene of a patch of the local woods. The scene will have a significance as the story progresses. There is a music hall comedian who won’t be tied down to a contract and only works have the available slots and a vicar who disappears every time Owen approaches.
As the story unfolds, we learn of two disappearances, one of an Admiral who has alleged Nazi sympathies, and a girl. There are stolen jewels and an injured army captain, Dunstan, who always seems to be around when something happens. And why does Miss Tinkler go to the Tea House, order a tea and cake and not touch it, meet Mrs Bloom and sit in silence? Short-handed, Owen has to call on the Boy Scouts to help search the area and his long-suffering wife, Olive, is instrumental in finding the mysteries behind the uncommunicative women.
Punshon cranks up the sense of mystery and atmosphere as the investigations nears its climax, initiated by a grizzly discovery of a body hidden at the spot depicted in the painting “with a smell of rotting, a smell of things decaying”. In a community redolent with dark secrets, a young man with an inquisitive nature was bound to be unwelcome and it was this which caused his demise. I won’t spoil quite what he had discovered, but Owen is able to piece together a disparate set of leads to answer the mystery of the vicar and music hall comic, why Mrs Bloom and her tea companion meet in silence and who committed the murders. It all comes together in a spectacular finale, a set piece in which Punshon shows his mastery.
A great read.