Mystery Villa

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.

The Dartmoor Enigma

A review of The Dartmoor Enigma by Basil Thomson

If you like police procedural novels where doing the hard yards and a bit of fortune leads to the unravelling of a case rather than the deductive intuition of an amateur sleuth, then Basil Thomson’s Inspector Richardson series is worth your time and trouble to explore.

What strikes the modern reader about The Dartmoor Enigma, the fifth outing for Richardson, originally published in 1935 and now reissued by Dean Street Press – it also goes by the alternative and clunkier title of Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery – is how leisurely the investigation is. Richardson and his sidekick Jago, who knows the Dartmoor area, travel by train, bus, foot and have to fight for the one police car available. Telegrams and calls from phone boxes, letters and handwritten reports are the forms of communication rather than the e-mails and mobiles you would find in a modern police story. Documents have either to be transcribed or photographed It is a wonder that they achieved anything.

Richardson, the rising star of the Yard, is called in to investigate the death of Charles Dearborn after the local Chief Constable receives an anonymous letter suggesting that the man’s death was not caused by a motor accident, but an assault. It is a difficult case for Richardson as so many of the initial promising clues turn out to be dead ends.

Dearborn seemed to have been a man of mystery, someone who kept himself to himself. He had money, although no one was sure where it came from. There were rumours that it was from a property sale. He moved into the area three years ago, advertised for a housekeeper whom he married a year later. He had recently bought a local quarry. A quarry worker, described as an agitator, was dismissed by Dearborn and was seen at the scene of the accident. However, his alibi stacks up.

In what seems to be his next breakthrough, the writer of the anonymous letter is identified but they, too, have a cast-iron alibi. An American publicist arrives on the scene who represents a young film star going by the name of Jane Smith claims that she is the wife of Dearborn. Did this mean that Dearborn was a bigamist? This turns out to be the clue that Richardson desperately needed to crack the case.

He discovers that the Dearborn that Jane Smith married was not the Dearborn that was killed on Dartmoor. Yes, it is another case of assumed identities, masking a shady past which explains the dead man’s wealth and provides the motivation for his death. Richardson, under pressure from his superiors to either wrap the case up or solve it as they are concerned about the expenses he is clocking up – financial pressures seem to have been as much a bugbear for the police then as they were now – finally makes sense of it all.

In truth, the resolution is a tad anticlimactic and, perhaps, an explanation but not a conviction to go with it would antagonise the bean counters at the Yard even more. Still, justice has to be seen to be done and Richardson’s tireless efforts bring about a result.

Thomson writes in an easy style and what I like about his books is that as a former senior officer at the Yard he has insights about police procedure and the stresses and strains of working on a case that other writers at the time cannot bring so authoritatively to their narrative. He uses his insider’s insights sparingly and lightly, but they give an added layer of authority to the story.

The book is entertaining enough, with enough twists and turns to keep all but the most demanding reader satisfied, and Richardson and Jago are engaging companions. Although far from a classic, Richardson scores again.      

The Chianti Flask

A review of The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Originally published in 1934 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, The Chianti Flask is more of a psychological novel than a piece of out and out detective fiction. There is a little bit of detective work towards the end of the book, but the book really reads like a hangover of those novels so beloved by the Victorians which explore a moral dilemma, a sort of second-class Trollope, with a healthy dose of xenophobia thrown in.

The book opens with the trial of Laura Dousland who is accused of the murder of her husband, Fordish, by poisoning. The case hinges on a Chianti flask. The Dousland’s Italian servant, Angelo Terugi, claimed that he left, as usual, a flask of Chianti on his master’s tray before he went out. Laura claimed that there was no such flask on the tray which she took up to her husband on that fateful night and the flask was not found.

Laura cuts a sympathetic figure in the courtroom, while Angelo’s clumsy English provokes waves of laughter and, anyway, you can never trust a foreigner. Laura is acquitted, principally as a result of the evidence of a young doctor, Mark Scrutton, who reveals Fordish’s fascination with poison. Although at liberty, her friends are astonished that she is not delighted and prefers to hide herself away. Inevitably, though, she falls in love with the dashing doctor.

Laura’s dilemma is whether she can run the risk the promising career of the doctor by associating herself, a woman who has been accused of a heinous crime, albeit acquitted, with him. Scrutton’s family also have qualms about the impact of their son’s reputation if he married the woman, although Scrutton, lovestruck, is less concerned, but as a keen horticulturalist, is keen to restore the garden of the Dousland’s austere house in an effort to improve its market price.

A bit of gardening leads to a discovery which throws a different perspective on to Laura and Mark’s dilemma.

Lowndes, sister of Hilaire Belloc, makes a better fist of what seems a rather unpromising storyline than I had anticipated, and the book is entertaining enough. It will not immediately appeal to those who like a straightforward murder mystery, but if you like a book that explores the psychological impact of being involved in a crime, even if ultimately acquitted, and the consequences of guilt by association, then this may well appeal to you.

I saw the book also as a bit of a proto-feminist tract. Laura was of middle-class stock but had no money and was forced to earn her living as a governess. She was bullied by her then employer to marry Fordish, a man considerably older than her and considered an odd fish even by his friends. Marriage would give her the security that living by her wits would not, although it was clearly an unsuitable match, which Laura had grave concerns about right at the start. For women in her position at the time, marriage was their only viable option. Inevitably, it was an unhappy marriage, and it is easy to see why Laura, desperate for a way out, could have considered the use of poison.  

It also raises the question of the stigma that can attach to women. Her prospects were damaged by her association with the crime, her name and reputation besmirched by having to stand trial, notwithstanding her satisfying the judge and jury of her innocence. Her so-called friends saw as a source of interest and scandal and it would take a brave or reckless man, such as Scrutton, to attempt her rehabilitation into society. Again, marriage was the only way out. There had to be a better way open to a woman in Laura’s situation.

An intriguing book rather than a classic.

The Edge Of Terror

A review of The Edge of Terror by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn has certainly been one of my discoveries, thanks to Dean Street Press who have rescued his works from obscurity by reissuing them for modern fans of Golden Age detective fiction to discover. The Edge of Terror is the twelfth in his Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1932, and once again Flynn has changed his formula and introduced new facets to the character of his amateur sleuth, ALB. The shock to those who have studiously followed the series in chronological order is to discover that Bathurst, who to date had given the impression of being a confirmed bachelor, as the euphemism had it, was engaged to be married, to Rachel Marquis, who turns up in this story. Their relationship seems frosty, she did ditch him after all and married another, but they collaborate in the end to good effect.

Flynn has chosen to have the story narrated by one of the characters, Doctor Michael Bannerman. His narrative style is a little unsettling at first, straight out of the Bertie Wooster book of public school boy slang, and then becomes a little wearying, until the action hots up and his Woosterisms seem to fade into the background. As before, one drawback of having the tale narrated is that it either relies upon the narrator being always present to witness all of the action, unlikely if they are a Watson to someone’s Holmes, or are reliant upon a third party relating the key points of what they missed. Fortunately, Bannerman is hit on the head and for the final two chapters, Bathurst takes over the narrative to wrap things up.

A curious aspect of Bannerman’s narrative style is his approach to medical issues. He is absolutely precise in his usage of medical terms and his description of illness and cause of death, as befits a medical man, but this precision is at odds with his generally vacuous descriptive style. Bannerman also hero worships Bathurst and there is evidence of a growing bromance, if only one-sided, as the story develops.

The story starts with an anonymous letter, received by Inspector Goodaker, in which the writer announces that by 31st August the writer will rid what he describes as “your most atrocious town” of “one of the most prominent citizens”. The letter suggests that matters will not end there. Goodaker takes Bannerman into his confidence and on August 31st the police receive another letter announcing the killer’s arrival. The following morning the body of Walter Fredericks, a prominent businessman who owns two cinemas in the town, is found with his throat cut.

Would you believe it, but Anthony Bathurst is in the area on holiday and the Chief Constable immediately ropes him in to help with investigations. One of Fredericks’ sons is also murdered and Bathurst is convinced that the deaths are part of a vendetta. His theory is somewhat shaken when a third murder is committed, that of a confectionary salesgirl at one of Fredericks’ cinemas, but it is this crime which enables Bathurst to get to grips with the puzzle.

Outside of the realms of detective fiction, communities faced with a serial killer – the fascinating introduction tells us that the term was not in use at the time – would response by looking after their own safety by organising vigilante groups. Unusually for detective fiction this is what the townsfolk do, organising a rota of vigilantes and erecting powerful floodlights. Their actions are to no avail and provoke another murder.

Flynn revels in false identities and dark secrets from the past, both elements featuring heavily in this tale. While the identity of the murderer can just about be worked, the motivations for the killing spree are hard to determine and require Bathurst’s detailed explanation at the end for it all to make sense.        

It is not a perfect book by any means, but it is thoroughly enjoyable. Flynn is not afraid to mix his styles and approaches and can be relied upon to produce a splendid piece of entertainment. Oh, and there is another superb pub name to add to the collection – the Cat and Coffee-Pot.

Christmas Crackers (12)

And to round off our review of cringeworthy attempts at Christmas humour:

Why is Parliament like ancient Bethlehem? It takes a miracle to find three wise men there.

What do you get if you lie under a cow? A pat on the head

What athlete is warmest in winter? A long jumper

What did the snowflake say to the fallen leaf? You are so last season

How does Santa keep track of all the fireplaces he’s visited? He keeps a logbook.

What goes ha ha ha clonk? A man laughing his head off!

Which of Santa’s reindeer have the worst manners? Rude-olph

What do you get when you cross an apple with a Christmas tree? A Pineapple

What did the sea say to Santa? Nothing! It just waved!

And finally…a skeleton goes into a pub and orders a pint of beer and a mop!

Hope you had an enjoyable time.