Crossword Mystery

A review of Crossword Mystery by E R Punshon

You get value for your money in this, the third in E R Punshon’s Bobby Owen series, originally published in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. It also goes by the name of Crossword Murder. Not only do you have a riveting puzzle to digest but there is also a crossword puzzle, framework and clues around a third of the way through the book and the completed puzzle later on, and a gruesome ending that would not have been out of place in Game of Thrones.

One of the things I like about Punshon is that his socialist colours do peep out in his stories from time to time. Unusually for a British writer at the time he seems alive to the threat caused by the Fascist movement, particularly that which was emerging in Germany, and is sympathetic to the plight of those who stand up against or get in the way of a seemingly unstoppable machine. The German refugee, who to his horror discovers his Semitic ancestry and his attempts to escape with a semblance of his wealth and goods is sympathetically handled.

Although a Bobby Owen novel, this is as much an Inspector Mitchell story. Owen is still a junior making his way up the ranks. Mitchell is his father figure, his mentor and does his best to encourage Owen’s initiative and ability to understand problems that is rarely exhibited in officers of such junior rank. Owen’s mission is to go to a peaceful seaside village, Suffby Cove, to protect a retired businessman, George Winterton, who fears for his life and, having friends in high places, has asked for police protection. Winterton gives no clue as to why he feels he is in peril other than his insistence that his brother, Archibald, was murdered rather than drowning at sea in placid conditions, despite being a strong swimmer.

Owen, too, suspects there is more to Archibald’s death than meets the eye, a suspicion compounded when, objectively, he fails in his mission. George is murdered. There are two aspects about George’s character that hold the key to his and his brother’s demise, his fixation with gold as the only safe haven for one’s wealth and crossword puzzles. Crossword puzzles were a fairly new craze at the time that Punshon wrote this book, the first in the UK was published in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922 and the first British newspaper to publish one was the Sunday Express on November 2, 1924.

George is a crossword addict and is engaged in compiling his own puzzle. It is odd in design and Owen quickly works out that solving it will assist enormously in unravelling the mystery. Readers can, if they so desire although it is difficult if you are reading the e-book version, and will soon discover, as Owen did, that it is more a cryptogram than a conventional puzzle.

Alongside the secrets of the puzzle there is a plan to turn Suffley Cove into a glorified theme park and casino complex. The Wintertons were resistant to the developers’ plans. Was this a factor in their demise. In a nod to Sherlock Holmes there is a dog that did not bark when the first crime was committed and which was done away with before George was murdered. What did this tell about the identity of the culprits? And what role did Warburton’s housekeeper play in it all? She seems to exert influence on all aspects of life at Suffley Cove, far more so than you would expect from a woman in her position.

As usual in a Punshon novel, he plays fair with his readers, and it is a relatively simple task to spot whodunit even if the why is a little more opaque. The story ends with one of Punshon’s famed set pieces, which is dramatic, perhaps a tad melodramatic, and certainly gory. It seems almost out of place in a genre that deals with murder and death but in a gentler, less vivid fashion.

I enjoyed the book immensely, but then I am a Punshon addict. For those wishing to dip their toes into his works, a trip to Suffley Cove makes an ideal starting point.

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