Music Tells All

A review of Music Tells All by E R Punshon

I was wondering what music I should have played on my speakers as I was reading Punshon’s twenty-fourth novel in his Bobby Owen series, originally published in 1948 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. Perhaps a bit of Stockhausen or some Captain Beefheart at his most obtuse. If his previous book, Helen Passes By, was about the power of a woman’s beauty to turn a man weak at the knees, Punshon’s Music Tells All is about the power of music to worm its way into our subconscious and be suggestive and even to make us give way to our innermost desires and fears.

The leitmotif of this book is Miss Bellamy’s piano playing. She pounds away at her music at all hours of the day and night, her repertoire consisting of ideas and feelings delivered ad lib and in a profoundly disturbing impromptu style. Listeners feels compelled to stand and listen as the themes and notes get to work in their minds, provoking strange responses which are out of character.

Punshon’s novels are notable for their set pieces – there is a great section where Bobby Owen chases in his car a suspect on a motor bike – for his realism – it is post Second World War but there is still much about the difficulties imposed by rationing, food as well as petrol – and for his insights into Owen’s home life – his relationship with his wife is supportive, loving, occasionally tetchy and, occasionally, she despairs of him. All are to be found here in spades and the character of Owen is more grounded for that.

Indeed, it his wife, Olive, who sets the action in motion with her search for new accommodation following Owen’s elevation to a currently nebulous role at Scotland Yard and his relocation from Wychshire. She answers an advertisement in a newspaper and to their surprise they are selected and offered a very suitable cottage in the countryside not too far from London at an attractive rent. Owen, cynic as he is, cannot help thinking that there is something fishy about the way that they were selected when so many applied and the post war housing crisis is so acute. Olive is less concerned.

The neighbours seem friendly enough, albeit somewhat eccentric, not least the fiendish pianist that is Miss Bellamy. Soon, though, matters take a more sinister turn. Part of Owen’s new responsibilities is to run training courses and he is organising a dummy run to test the speed at which the police respond to a theft. Plans are spoiled when there is a real smash and grab raid and Owen pursues the suspect, who he is convinced looks like his landlord’s and neighbour’s chauffeur back near to his new home when the suspect vanishes mysteriously. Then two bodies are found, the victims of murder, at the remains of an air raid shelter, one of whom has been trying to sell dodgy jewellery, although the vicar finds one of the gems, a valuable opal ring, on a driveway.

As none of this happens on Owen’s patch, the local police are called into investigate. The lead investigator is one of Owen’s old muckers, Inspector Bell, who seconds Owen to assist in solving the case. Despite the odd red herring, they eventually get to the heart of matters, a plot to gain revenge for two of the main characters’ father being made to carry the can for an earlier embezzlement.

The truth is revealed in another of Punshon’s set pieces, the aftermath of a dinner party where what we know as poule-au-pot Henri IV is served. Olive may be scrimping and scraping to make her food rations stretch but Miss Bellamy seems to have an inexhaustible supply of wholesome ingredients. Food envy had reared its head when the distinctive smell of cooked rabbit gives Owen some food for thought about the reliability of a suspect’s alibi.

There is always something to enjoy in a Punshon novel and, although the pace slowed down in the middle sections as Owen and Bell got to grips with the intricacies of the case, the reader is rewarded with a neatly resolved plot. Owen’s hunches prove well-founded and his cynicism about the ease with which he found new accommodation is justified.

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