A review of Mystery Villa by E R Punshon
Although he has long gone out of fashion and he never hit the heights of some of his more illustrious contemporaries, when E R Punshon is on song he is more than capable of producing a minor masterpiece. Mystery Villa, the fourth in his Bobby Owen series, originally published in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, almost reaches those heights.
Punshon has a predilection for the set piece and his description of Tudor Lodge, the mystery villa, is a fine piece of sustained writing. Miss Barton is a recluse who has shunned human contact for nearly fifty years. She was jilted on her wedding day and the rooms of her house still bear silent witness to the tragedy. The table is still laid for the wedding breakfast, food has decayed, the canary in its cage has become a pile of dust, mice and spiders have a field day. As Bobby Owen wanders round this house of horror, Punshon delights in adding layer upon layer of decay, dust, and misery. It is a fine piece of atmospheric writing that border on the gothic and even parody but just keeps to the right side of the line, sensitively handling the consequences of a woman who is unhinged.
It is not difficult to spot that Punshon has modelled the tragic Miss Barton on the equally tragic jilted bride in Dickens’ Great Expectations, Miss Havisham. Miss Barton even wears her wedding dress on the anniversary of her doomed wedding. Punshon also borrows another idea from a great writer. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk, a short story in the Suicide Club series first published in 1878, a body is hidden and transported from Paris to London in a Saratoga trunk. In Punshon’s book, the sense of horror the house engenders in all who visit and in the reader is the discovery of the body of Miss Barton’s intended in a Saratoga trunk and the realisation that she has lived with it for all those years. No wonder she did not want anyone to visit her.
As the events in the book unfold, Miss Barton has disappeared. What has happened to her? Why was an experienced cat burglar, Con Conway, showing interest in the place and why did he flee the scene on terror? What have the shifty shop owner and his equally suspicious assistant have to do with the tale? Why was a valuable pearl left behind at Talbot House? There are many twists and turns before Inspector Mitchell and Bobby Owen resolve the mystery of the house.
What I like about Punshon’s portrayal of Owen is that while we know he is the man who will carry the series and is destined for great things, his ascent up the greasy pole is not assured. Indeed, Owen makes a number of elementary errors or fails to grasp the importance of a piece of evidence and he is reliant upon the guidance and wisdom of his mentor, Inspector Mitchell, to pull him through. Owen is not a super-hero but a young man who is learning the ropes. There is a great deal of realism in Punshon’s treatment of him.
The plot causes the book to fall short of being a classic. For all of Bobby Owen’s blundering and false steps, it is relatively easy to work out whodunit, even if the motivation is a tad opaque. There is not much in the way of true detection and the nosy neighbour, Mrs Rice, is just a little too handy. There are some loose ends left at the end, not least what Co Conway had seen and his involvement if any in the case and in comparison with the lengthy investigations the resolution, with much going on off stage, appears a little rushed.
That aside, it is a thoroughly enjoyable book and you can sense that Punshon had fun writing it. If you have not tried Punshon, this may just be the place to start.
Happy New Year to you all.