Tag Archives: Bobby Owen

Everybody Always Tells

A review of Everybody Always Tells by E R Punshon – 230323

Surely one of the reasons that E R Punshon’s Bobby Owen series fell into undeserved obscurity is the poor choice of titles. Everybody Always Tells is not one that leaps off the book cover and demands that the reader invests some time in reading it. The title comes from Owen’s oft repeated, at least in this book, and somewhat optimistic view that eventually everybody tells the truth, but the auditor is to be alert enough to recognise when the truth is being told and about what.

This is the twenty-seventh outing for Bobby Owen, now an officer in the upper echelons of Scotland Yard, originally published in 1950 and now reissued by the inestimable Dean Street Press. It is remarkable to think that Punshon was in his late seventies when he wrote this and for that reason alone, he can be forgiven a certain formulaic feel to the structure of the book. There is the set-up, some detailed police procedural work, a review of the facts and theories garnered to date with Olive, Owen’s wife, operating as a sounding board and a more than diligent provider of direction, some more investigation, and then the denouement involving a dramatic set piece in which our hero puts himself in jeopardy to bring the case to its conclusion.

Bobby Owen will never be short of interesting cases while he is attached to the human crime magnet that is his wife. The book starts with the couple, Bobby more the reluctant bag carrier, bargain-hunting in a famous store when a necklace is placed in Olive’s handbag. The person who put the necklace there is identified as the eccentric aristocrat, Lord Newdagonby, and when Bobby visits him to find out why, he walks into a darker mystery. Newdagonby’s daughter, upon whom he dotes, has received several death threats. While Bobby is there, the alarm is raised and when the rescue party reach a room on the upper floor of a rabbit warren of an old pile, they find Newdagonby’s son-in-law, Ivor Findlay, in his death throes, having been stabbed. He dies soon afterwards. Why was he killed and not his wife?

This is a form of locked-room murder mystery and there are a bewildering number of clues and possible motives, some red herrings, but, in truth, precious few suspects. There is marriage infidelity, a splash of existentialism, a fixation on Byron, an invention that is likely to revolutionise the industrial process, the literal cutting edge of technology, thwarted ambitions, two peep holes cut at a certain height, a poker, and two missing guinea pigs, about which Bobby Owen is obsessed to the irritation of all he meets but which, rather like Holmes’ dog that did not bark, hold the clue to the mystery.

This is another book in which Punshon has created an intriguing female character. Mrs Findlay, Newdagonby’s daughter, is portrayed as a restless soul, who is in search of her real self. She spent eighteen months exploring being good but ultimately found that she was not getting anything out of religion and is now exploring her darker, wicked self. She is a character rich in potential and I felt that a more energetic Punshon from his earlier days might well have made more of her. Instead, he allows Owen to reveal to her her folly to dramatic effect. She rushes off only to find herself in a life-threatening predicament. Naturally, Bobby rushes to her rescue but the woman has undergone such a Damascene conversion that any hopes that our hero had of bringing the culprit to justice are smashed to smithereens.

This is a well-written, intriguing murder mystery, perhaps not Punshon at his very best, but a book that is worth a read.

So Many Doors

A review of So Many Doors by E R Punshon -230212

One of life’s many little mysteries is why a Golden Age detective crime writer of the quality of E R Punshon fell so spectacularly out of fashion. Considerable credit must go to Dean Street Press for their sterling effort in reviving his fortunes and those of others. Perhaps what did not help his cause is his choice of titles (or was it his publisher)? Take the title of the 26th in Punshon’s Bobby Owen series, originally published in 1949.

Those expecting a murder mystery story written in a Whitehall farce style a la Brian Rix will be sorely disappointed. Instead it is part of a quotation from a play, The Custom of the Country, written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger in the early 1620s – death hath so many doors to let out life. Bobby Owen quotes the passage late in in the book although he does not attribute the quotation. It also echoes a phrase in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi (1623); “I know death hath ten thousand doors/ for men to take their exits”. The addition of “Death Hath” to the book’s title might have planted it more firmly in the genre and ensured its longevity. Who knows?

If the reader has understood the reference in the title, they might, perhaps, a series of unusual deaths, as inventive as those to be found in Ngaio Marsh at her best. While the murders are brutal in their own way, there is nothing out of the ordinary about them. Instead, what we have here is a tale of two women driven by their own furies and the consequential fall out when a woman with an irresistible attraction to me meets a man with an irresistible attraction to women. We never meet the two principal characters who drive the action and the tragic consequences of their mutual attraction, but their marks are all over the story.

With a wife like Olive who is a magnet for trouble, Bobby Owen, now promoted to the distinguished rank of Commander at the Yard, albeit without portfolio, is never short of something to get his teeth into. Olive tells him of the concerns of a couple who live nearby whose daughter, a seemingly bashful, demure, quiet girl by the name of Bella Winlock, has gone missing, last seen in the company of Mark Monk, who under a different name had been acquitted for the murder of his wife and who had been linked with the disappearance of another girl. Despite his initial reluctance to get involved, Bobby’s nose for a case and his finely tuned nose for danger takes him to Bexley House, where he discovers that one of the girls there, Margaret Kerr, has taken Bea’s handbag, there is a profusion of blood in the room and that a vehicle had driven off at high speed.

Bobby quickly discovers a world of illicit gambling, black market trading, dishonour amongst thieves, but is mystified as to who was murdered at Bexley House and by whom and how Bea was involved, if at all. We meet some wonderful characters, not least the tubercular and vindictive, drop earring wearing Vea Burden and an old-school racketeer, Joey George.

After what is an admittedly slow start, the action moves to Cornwall where the pace of the plot and the resolution of the mystery hots up. The ending, with all its tragedy, is dramatic as, despite the woefully inadequate but well-meaning endeavours of the local police, prove inadequate against the furies that are driving the two women.         

There are plenty of red herrings, some intriguing characters, some moments of comedy, a glimpse of the reality of London immediately post war, and while the culprit and the victim are reasonably easy to identify, Punshon has served up a thrilling and entertaining story which demonstrates what an underrated crime writer he was.

An added highlight of this edition is a collection of crime reviews Punshon wrote during his stint as a literary reviewer at the Manchester Guardian. He was certainly a man who knew what he wanted from the genre.

Four Strange Women

A review of Four Strange Women by E R Punshon

Bobby Owen’s promotion to Inspector and his transfer to Wychshire, his reward after a bit of string pulling by Lady Markham after his success in Murder Abroad, turns out to be a bit of a poisoned chalice. The chief constable, Colonel Glynne, is in a pickle as he suspects that his daughter, Becky, and possibly his son, Leonard, as well as the daughter of the chairman of the police committee, Hazel Hannay, might be involved in some skulduggery. Bobby Owen, to earn his spurs, has to get to the bottom of a mystery which expands as he digs deeper.

Originally published in 1940 and reissued by Dean Street Press, Four Strange Women is the fourteenth in his Bobby Owen series and a powerful, macabre, and at times melodramatic tale it is too. The book starts off with Lord Harry Darmoor making a late-night visit to Owen’s flat to tell him of the strange deaths of two young men and his concerns over the safety of Billy Baird. Darmoor has his fiancée, Gwen Barton, one of four women, along with Becky Glynne, Hazel Hannay and Lady May Grayson, who crop up with remarkable regularity as the story progresses. Baird, naturally, is found dead in a burnt-out caravan in the woods of Wychshire as Bobby arrives in the county.

The three young men and their deaths have remarkable similarities, all reported to have changed, to be under the influence of women, to have spent lavishly on jewellery that has disappeared from public view, and to have died in mysterious circumstances in what looks like suicide. Added to the mix is a picaresque street singer who specialises in Welsh language songs and a chauffeur who has vanished into thin air having stolen some jewels from his employer.

This is a dark, brooding, atmospheric book which lurches into the Gothic, the bizarre, and the melodramatic in equal measures. Owen begins to realise that there is a malign influence behind the personality changes in the three victims, whom he begins to suspect have been murdered, and that as well as having a serial killer on his hands the culprit is a woman. But which one?

By the time investigations get underway in earnest, Colonel Glynne has removed himself from the scene having conveniently signed himself off sick, Bobby is on his own and shuttles around between Wychshire, London, and Cardiff. There is a welcome return for the Cut and Come Again club, now said to be under new management, and a risqué club offering a mix of quasi-Satanic ritual and a dash of nudity, giving a new meaning to a petting club. Olive, Owen’s fiancée, still in London, makes the occasional appearance, offering her wisdom and female intuition as a sounding board.

While Owen is convinced that he can piece everything together and has a shrewd idea who the culprit is, what he lacks is evidence that would stand up in court. This is provided, in the most part, by a written statement from one of the male characters, by the time he is able to act upon it another has taken revenge in a ghoulish and innovative way. This is another book that raises the dilemma of whether someone who has rid society of a dark and manipulative force of evil deserves to suffer the fate that legal justice demands. The dilemma is resolved neatly, and the reader finishes the book with the sense that justice has been done.

The plot is unconventional and bizarre and Punshon does a fine job in keeping the reader guessing as to who the culprit is until almost the end. I had it down to two and, in a sense, I was right on both counts. Punshon creates some fine set pieces although the pace does drag in the middle as the conscientious Owen plods through the evidence and tests theories and alibis. Once he is on the home straight the pace picks up and the overall result is, in my opinion, one of Punshon’s best and most intriguing tales.

Murder Abroad

A review of Murder Abroad by E R Punshon

Originally published in 1939 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, the thirteenth in Punshon’s enjoyable Bobby Owen series, Murder Abroad is unusual in several respects. As its rather prosaic title suggests the story is set abroad, in the quiet French village of Citry-sur-l’eau in the Massif Centralto be precise, and Bobby is flying solo, operating with no official authority. Still engaged to Olive Farrar but with her millinery business struggling and he still a lowly Detective Sergeant, his prospects of tying the knot and making an honest woman of her seems as distant as ever.

Olive, though, comes up with an intriguing proposition. One of her customers, one that actually pays, Lady Markham mentions that the family of Miss Polthwaite are concerned about the manner of her death in France and the whereabouts of the uncut diamonds into which she converted her wealth. Lady Markham would like the Yard’s up-and-coming detective to investigate. She can swing a month’s leave, extended to six weeks subsequently, and will finesse a transfer to a better paid job and organise a reward if he reclaims the diamonds. This seems the answer to all of Bobby’s problems.

One curious aspect of this arrangement is that, hitherto, Bobby who is aristocratic by birth and Oxford educated, albeit with a third, has always been prickly over suggestions that his path up the greasy pole has been eased by his connections. Here, though, he is willing to ditch his principles. Love conquers all, and so to France he goes.

The Miss Polthwaite saga, as the illuminating introduction reveals, is based on a true story ten years earlier, featuring a distant relative of Richard Branson’s whose killer, despite strong suspicions, was never apprehended. Miss Polthwaite’s body had been found down a well and although rumours were circulating that she had been murdered by Charles Camion with whom she is said to have had a fling, the authorities declared it was suicide. There was no trace of her diamonds. Bobby, on inspecting the well with its heavy lid, concludes that suicide it was not.

Punshon writes about the French countryside with affection and avoids any hint of the little Englander. Life in England and France is compared and contrasted, but Punshon recognises that each have their own strengths and there is no attempt to claim cultural superiority. I particularly enjoyed his comments about the theatre of the French restaurant turning feeding into dining.

Bobby is a stranger abroad and although he speaks the language, Punshon occasionally emphasises his sleuth’s familiarity with the more idiomatic aspects of the language, Bobby is less comfortable in understanding the psychology of the French villagers. He also misses the opportunity to discuss his discoveries, progress, and frustrations with his superiors and for the first time has to make his own decisions as to how to proceed, always conscious that he has no authority to act.

There are several villagers, including Camion and the village priest, whose dreams and ambitions would be fulfilled with the money that the old spinster’s diamonds would bring in and, naturally, they are prime suspects. Then there are the English couple who have rented the mill with the well where Miss Polthwaite met her death, an artist who hangs a curious picture with little artistic merit, and the picaresque beggar, Père Trouché, whose acute sense of hearing compensates for his blindness. Bobby’s uncertainty as to whether the beggar, who is both omniscient and ubiquitous, is really blind is a leitmotif of the book, with the beggar assuming the role of Owen’s amanuensis, helping to unlock the secrets of the village.

The solution to the mystery, which is both dramatic and full of pathos, lies in an ingenious reworking of a familiar tale from Greek mythology and completes an enthralling and enjoyable book. We will see whether Bobby’s rewards will be enough to let him marry Olive.

Suspects – Nine

A review of Suspects – Nine by E R Punshon

Originally published in 1939 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, Suspects – Nine is the twelfth in Punshon’s Bobby Owen series. Its title and idea, a case where there are (ahem) nine suspects, although one is a bit of a cop-out named just X, can, perhaps, be traced to J J Connington’s A Case with Nine Solutions, published eleven years earlier. At least Pushon delivers us eight potential suspects, even if not a ninth, whereas Connington really only had two or three credible solutions up his sleeve.

There is a distinct change in mood and style about this book. Punshon, who was never afraid to wear his politics lightly on his sleeve, writes with more humour than in many of his books and with a list of characters who occupy the higher echelons of society he has ample opportunity to poke fun at their expense. The threat of war is evident in the narrative and the consequences of a speech by one of the dictators at the time allows Bobby Owen to sort the wheat from the chaff in his mind.

Punshon also has fun with his young police sleuth. Bobby’s engagement with the milliner, Olive Farrar, is still proceeding, but the young detective sergeant is still struggling to understand the female mind and their ways, while Olive finds some of his mannerisms both amusing and irritating, a particular smile eliciting the threat that she would throw her engagement ring at him. Bobby is also frustrated at the lack of opportunities for promotion, having been dubbed as a plodder who succeeds rather than someone mercurial who sometimes fails, not a good look in the Yard, it seems.

Owen does, though, have the knack of being in the right place at the right time, while Olive is a magnet for trouble. It all starts with a hat, which has been custom made for Flora Tamar at Olive’s shop, but which Lady Alice Bedchamber, after coming to look at it, has walked off with. Bobby, as a favour to Olive, goes round to her Ladyship’s in a fruitless attempt to retrieve the hat and while he is there, notices a shady private detective, Bill Martin, lurking in the shadows.            

It emerges that there is a feud between the two ladies, and we soon come across a tangled web of emotional relationships between several of the main characters, jealousies, obsessions, suspicions, and more. Unlike Bobby, the Tamar’s butler is in the wrong place at the wrong time, seemingly lured to Weeton Hill by the prospect of finding £100 hidden under a stone, which an anonymous note asks Michael Tamar to place there. The butler is found having been shot seven times and then, when dead, stabbed by a knife which turns out to be owned by Lady Belchamber, an Amazon of a woman who, in her youth, had a colourful past. Was the butler trying to blackmail someone or was it a case of mistaken identity?

The gun belongs to Renfield who with barely two halfpennies to rub together would inherit from Tamar’s demise. A car belonging to Ernie Maddox (a woman) was seen and photographed in the vicinity and then there is Judy (a man) who appears to be emotionally attached to both Ernie and Flora. The nicknames of these two may have been a joke but it rather palls as they have quite a role to play in the drama.

Bobby’s role is very much that of an outsider. The investigation is conducted by South Essex police Bobby is seconded to them because of his knowledge of and contacts with the principal suspects and even has to suffer the indignity of being assigned as bodyguard to Michael Tamar. Like other observational sleuths, though, he uses his position to advantage to understand the motives of the suspects.

This is a very character-driven story and, in truth, several of the suspects could easily have done it. Punshon gives the impression that he settled on his culprit late on and their fate is sealed by a fatal miscalculation. He also seems to be as interested in exploring human emotions, particularly in affairs of the heart, as much as the mechanics of a crime. It makes for a different, more complex story, often amusing, full of sharp observation, and highly enjoyable. Crime fiction can be more than a whodunit.