A review of The Bath Mysteries by E R Punshon
I am glad I use my bath to store my coal rather to cleanse myself in as this is yet another murder mystery where the victims, and there are a few of them, drown in their baths. More intriguingly, each of the victims is estranged from their family and friends and has had their lives insured for £20,000, the modern equivalent of just under £1.5m. Worse still for up-and-coming police detective, Bobby Owen, in this his seventh adventure, originally published in 1936 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, the victim who kicks off this story is from his family circle.
Bobby Owen is from an upper-class family, something that he is reluctant to draw attention to and which causes him some difficulties in his chosen line of work, policing. To his chagrin, he is dragged into investigate the death of Ronnie Oliver at the behest of his uncle, Lord Hirlpool, who has pulled a few strings given that he is pally with the Home Secretary. Initially, this is an officially sanctioned frolic of Owen’s own, greeted with the dismay and head shaking of his superiors, but he unearths such a complex web of dodgy financial syndicates, including the wonderfully named Berry, Quick syndicate, life insurance policies and insured lives who have died in seemingly accidental circumstances that the PTB (powers that be) soon take an interest and almost sideline the ambitious ‘tec.
Punshon brings a wide range of characters into his tale from all strata of society, but it is clear that his interest and sympathies lie with the down-and-outs, the poor souls who are condemned to a life of living hand to mouth, finding a crust as best they can. It is from those who have fallen down in their luck that the mastermind behind the financial scam and murders recruits their victims. We meet some great picaresque characters including Maggoty Meg whose legerdemain provides the evidence which leads to the resolution of the case and Cripples, the coffee seller on the Embankment who is minus an arm and a leg, one from either side so that he is perfectly balanced.
Much of the best writing is reserved in developing the character of Percy Lawrence, a complex personality who is traumatised by the brutality of the punishment inflicted upon him in prison and is a depressive, behaving like an automaton and, to a lesser extent, Alice Yates, a young woman who is losing her sight. Both are caught up in the tentacles of the fiendish scheme, but for both, at the finale of the tale, there is the prospect of some form of salvation. There is a humane streak that runs through Punshon’s work, highly unusual for his chosen genre, but one which gives his better works an extra dimension.
The plot also involves the assumption of identities. To pass it off successfully it is important not to confuse your Monads with your Spinoza. Own is intrigued by the philosopher he meets, Beale, even goes back to his old Oxford college to check the man’s credentials – it is always handy to have a don on tap – and begins to realise that there is more to him than meets the eye. The detective, though, has more pressing problems to contend with, not least the realisation that some of his immediate family are perilously close to having their collars felt, an embarrassment that would spell the end of a promising career.
He also battles for his life in a fine set piece as he gets to grip with the culprit. Those favourite accessories of Miss Silver and Mrs Bradley, knitting needles, come to his aid, to ensure that justice prevails.
The scheme may be a little preposterous, as is the idea that drowning in a bath whether the victim has been drugged or not could be passed off as anything other than accidental, but this is a wonderful book, entertaining, gripping and one which wears its heart on its sleeve. This is Punshon at his best.