Death Of A Beauty Queen

A review of Death of a Beauty Queen by E R Punshon

Beauty contests are a thing of the past, no bad thing either, but for Caroline Mears, “a veritable goddess of old Grecian dreams” success at the contest held at the Brush Hill Central Cinema was to be her passport to a glittering career in Hollywood. Instead of access to untold riches her career ended abruptly when she was found fatally wounded in her dressing room and died on arrival at the hospital, dreams turned to ashes.

This is the central premise of an intriguing murder mystery which provides the reader with not one but two locked room murders and an improbable escape, an insight into the mind of a religious fanatic and the chance to observe the developing relationship between the rising star that is Bobby Owen and Superintendent Mitchell. Published in 1935 and reissued by Dean Street Press, this is the fifth in Punshon’s Bobby Owen series.

One of the fascinating features of the book for me is the interrelationship between Owen and Mitchell. Although the series charts the rise and successes of a policeman whom we first met as a bobby on the beat, Punshon is content to show him learning the job. Owen makes mistakes, is allocated the more mundane tasks and Mitchell makes most of the running in the investigation, but Owen has that happy knack of either being at the right place at the right time or understanding the importance of a remark, a slip, or a clue.

It is these characteristics that Mitchell notes and is keen to foster, allowing the whippersnapper his head, under careful supervision. Owen, too, is diligent, eager to please and has no inflated opinion of himself, happy to learn the ropes, perfect his craft, certain in the knowledge that one day he will lead investigations.

Punshon uses the character of Paul Irwin as a study of a religious fanatic. He preaches sermons of fire and brimstone, is a leading opponent of entertainment establishments like the cinema, especially when they hold beauty contests on a Sunday, and has a fractured relationship with his son, Leslie, one of the main suspects in the murder of Mears.

Leslie is one of Caroline Mears’ beaux and wants to marry her much against his father’s wishes. Fanaticism in all its forms is unhealthy, a thought that Punshon’s contemporary readership may have begun to grasp when they surveyed the events that were unfolding before their eyes. Political undertones are never far away from Punshon’s narrative.

The story line reveals love rivals, the disappearance of a handbag, the sudden appearance of Caroline’s ne’er do well father, and a surfeit of suspects, perhaps too many. The plot takes a sudden turn when one of the suspects escapes from a house supposedly well guarded by the police, clad only in pyjamas and barefoot, a story which grabs the attention of newspapers both at home and abroad. The Nazis, Punshon observes, thought that the Jews were behind it all.

A second locked room, or more accurately house, murder where the only other occupant was an improbable killer leads to a dramatic resolution of the mystery. Pedants will, rightly, claim that Punshon does not quite play fair with the reader to bring the story to an end and that he “borrows” an idea from a Conan Doyle story, but it is a smart ending to an entertaining and enthralling tale. As usual Punshon’s style is engaging, laced with wit and for those who choose to look there are more layers to his stories than meet the eye.

Punshon is a sadly underrated writer in this genre and all credit to Dean Street Press for raising his profile. Any fan of Golden Age detective fiction should devour his books.

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