Tag Archives: Dean Street Press

Mystery Of Mr Jessop

A review of Mystery of Mr Jessop by E R Punshon

In this the eighth in Punshon’s Bobby Owen, originally published in 1937 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, the aspiring young Detective Sergeant is part of a police raid on a well-known fence, TT Mullins, who, according to information received, is in possession of a valuable necklace stolen from a London jeweller. The raid ends in fiasco as Mullins and his associate, Wynne, catch the police trying to catch them. In the confusion shots are heard and inside Mullins’ house a dying man, Mr Jessop, is found. To add further intrigue, Jessop is the jeweller from whom the necklace, valued at £100,000, over £7m in today’s terms, was stolen and Jessop professes not to have known him.

The plot for this story is complicated, but boils down to two points, who killed Jessop and where is the necklace? There are plenty of twists and turns, a shoal of red herrings, and a charabanc full of suspects with plausible motives. Each of the suspects is up to no good, even the victim. What could have been an impenetrable mystery which threatens to lose the reader is handled with aplomb by Punshon who by this time has found his writing style. The narrative is sprinkled with clues, seemingly disparate articles such as a newspaper carrying the picture of a duchess found on the body of the victim, the tip of a rubber glove, some missing football results, an obsessive interest in furniture removal vans, a shady drinking establishment which everyone seems to belong to, but no one uses and much more. Patiently, Bobby Owen pieces the clues together to solve the mysteries, and the reader can too with patience and some reflection.

Owen’s mentor, Mitchell, has disappeared by now, replaced by Ullyet. Bobby is still a junior and is delegated what seem to be the more mundane or less promising leads to follow. However, he has the happy knack of being in the right place at the right time and is willing to think outside of the box rather than just follow orders. As the story unfolds, Ullyet appreciates Owen’s assistance more and when he is incapacitated by a gun shot is happy to let Owen have his head to bring the case to its conclusion.

One of the sub-themes that crop up in books of this genre at the time is whether certain classes and professions are above suspicion. Can a bishop or even a lowly parish priest or a member of the aristocracy, such as the Duke and Duchess in this story, be capable of dabbling in the murky underworld? As well as a critique on class consciousness, Punshon gives us some insight into the political atmosphere of the time. There are meetings of Fascists and Communists and one character, Higson, sees no difference between the two, each as interested in beating up their opponents as being the catalyst for political change.

It would not be a Punshon without a set piece and the car chase across the Cotswolds in pursuit of a removal van in which the necklace is secreted is the highlight for me. At one point there are almost half a dozen vehicles involved, and the narrative is full of stops to ask for directions, accidents, vehicles overturning, a Duke in an embarrassing situation, and gun fights, before Owen with the assistance of two of the previous suspects can make an arrest and retrieve the jewels. In an age accustomed to instant communications, CCTV, air assistance, and sat nav, it was salutary to realise just what a logistical nightmare it was for the police to pursue suspects in a car chase. Occasional stops at a phone box to obtain the latest intel and reliance on intuition was all they had. It was as well that all the pursuers had the same goal in mind.

This is a classic example of a fairly clued murder mystery and even if at times the plot was overly complicated, it was an enthralling and entertaining read, made by the finale. It was also good to see Maggoty Meg make a welcome appearance.

The Trail Of The Three Lean Men

A review of The Trail of the Three Lean Men by Christopher Bush

By the time The Trail of The Three Lean Men was published in 1932, Christopher Bush had given up his full-time employment as a teacher to concentrate on his developing writing career. This book is one of the rarest of his books, not helped by the fact that he chose to publish under the nom de plume of Noel Barclay, and it has been rescued from obscurity by Dean Street Press, for which they are to be congratulated. It may be that Bush did not want to distract from his now established brand of Ludovic Travers’ murder mysteries.

This is altogether a different book, more of an adventure story or a thriller in the John Buchan mould, albeit without the jingoism, or à la Eric Ambler without the finesse and psychological tautness. It is an engaging enough tale and there is more than enough to keep the reader entertained but it does not hit the heights of the masters of the genre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that it is narrated in the first person. Our guide is Don Temple, a man down on his luck who is lured, partly against his will and his better judgment, into a foreign caper with a gang in the imaginary European country of Levasque. In a thriller the reader can expect that the protagonists will experience moments of danger when their lives are in peril. Having your lead character recount the tale after the event takes away a lot of the dramatic tension as the reader can only assume that their narrator has survived their ordeal.

Short of funds Temple visits a newspaper friend of his in an attempt to secure a position. Their conversation turns to the legendary journalist, Tom Varlow, who has disappeared but who could make a story out of any seemingly random event. Looking out of the window, they see three lean men of various heights walking down the street and Temple accepts the challenge to follow them and write a story about them. Some dropped travel documents tell him that the motley crew of Prargent, Spider, Marcel together with their boss, Gimbolt whose real is revealed as Larkin, and a mysterious Mr Lewis are going to Levasque and he duly follows them.

The gang become suspicious of his attentions, not unsurprisingly, for which he earns a blow on the head and given an ultimatum to join them. Despite not knowing precisely what their game is, Temple agrees and masquerades as Prargent’s valet. The gang’s mission is to assassinate the dastardly Destordi who assassinated Larkin’s father in the States and has fled to Levasque where there is no extradition treaty.

During his time in Levasque, Temple witnesses a murder and an assassination attempt, for which he is arrested, frequents the Café Granard where he meets the enigmatic Feuermann, who is employed by Destordi, and an English chanteuse, Lucy, with whom, inevitably, he falls in love. Destordi is holed up in a well-protected house and after the gang’s original plan, suggested by Temple, of campaigning for a change in extradition laws fails spectacularly, they have to resort to more direct methods.

They employ an ingenious method to break into the house, and there is a shootout, increasing the body count by another four, Lucy, who had been held hostage, is rescued, and the true identity of Feuermann is revealed. There is an element of “and they all lived happily after” to the ending as Temple makes his fortune, and gets his girl, by which time the journalistic side of the tale has long been forgotten.

The book had its moments and was written with some verve, but Bush has written far better, and I got the sense that this was something he wanted to get out of his system. One for the completist.

Knock, Murderer, Knock

A review of Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland

Harriet Rutland is another new author to me, the pen name of Olive Shimwell, whose three crime fiction novels have been rescued from obscurity by Dean Street Press. This is her first, originally published in 1938, and whilst not a classic, is enjoyable and raises some interesting aspects. Rutland has an engaging style and writes with humour and is particularly adept at satirising English snobbery and the garrulousness and petty vindictiveness of the old. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Scottish play, as the acting fraternity say, and heralds the denouement but the opening quotation from Pickwick Papers sets the scene for a story set in a Hydro in Devon, Presteignton, whose guests in the main are old, wealthy, ailing, with plenty of time on their hands, and waiting for the grim reaper.

The murderer’s choice of weapon is intriguing, a steel knitting needle thrust into the medulla through the gap between the top and bottom sections of the skull. The gap only reveals itself when the head is bent forward, and the method of despatch requires great precision and strength. However, it is perfectly in tune with the setting as most of the residents of the Hydro are old women. Just to ensure that the list of potential suspects is not limited to the females at the hotel, Rutland includes a Colonel who knits!

One of the hallmarks of Golden Age detective novels is that the victim or victims are generally obnoxious characters, over whom the writer spends little sympathy and whose demise generally leaves the reader unmoved. Here, though, Rutland goes somewhat against the grain and this is perhaps one of the reasons why I did not find the novel as satisfying as I had hoped. The first victim, Miss Blake, is standard murder victim fare, a beautiful young woman who stands out a mile in the Hydro, goes out of her way to upset the female guests and flutter her eyelashes at the men, wanders around in her swimming costume, cavorts with the young Sir Humphrey Chervil, and is generally up to no good. Sir Humphrey is the last to see her alive, is found with her jewels and is arrested by the local investigating policeman, Palk.

The other two victims are more troubling. The young girl who is having a fling with her father’s chauffeur and the third, a cheeky young boy, are really just fodder for the plot and Rutland is not really concerned about the consequences of their murders, such as the impact on their families, instead using them to hurry along the plot, which at this point was in danger of stalling. That they were murdered in exactly the same way as Miss Blake suggests that Palk had made a grave mistake in arresting Sir Humphrey.

There are lots of suspects, almost too many, and Rutland takes her time in introducing them to us and then allowing them to detail their thoughts and suspicions about Miss Blake’s murders as they are interviewed in turn by Palk. Although the suspects are many, including a female writer of detective fiction whose plot line presaged the unusual method the murderer used to kill their victim, the motivation for killing these three very different victims is suggestive of a very particular world view and makes identifying the culprit relatively easy.

Palk is making little headway in his investigations, when a new character, Mr Winkley, enters the story in the guise of an amateur sleuth. To Palk’s annoyance he stages a reconstruction of the first murder. Eventually, Winkley reveals that he is from Scotland Yard, there at the doctor’s behest and the three join forces to bring the culprit out into the open. Winkley reveals exactly who Sir Humphrey and Miss Blake were and what their game was at the Hydro and by further reconstructions, involving the Doctor visiting his secretary’s room late at night, thereby unlocking their feelings for each other, he brings the culprit out into the open to make their fatal knock on the door.

The book was good fun, but the pacing was patchy and the two extra murders and the entry of Winkley were necessary to stop the story grinding to a halt. I will definitely read her other two books.

The Case Of The Purple Calf

A review of The Case of the Purple Calf by Brian Flynn

Even the most ardent fan of Brian Flynn would be hard pressed to make a convincing case that this, the sixteenth in his Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, is one of his finest. For such a normally innovative writer it struck me as a tad pedestrian and, stylistically, the language is rather overblown at places and phrases like “it will be remembered that…” suggest that Flynn may have some form of serialisation in mind. It is a shame because the idea behind it was full of possibilities.

It is not often that you come across a story that involves a traveling fair, a dodgy London nightclub called the Purple Calf where you can have kippers and a bottle of wine which must have given it a certain atmosphere, an alligator trainer, an ingenious and somewhat gruesome murder weapon, and a series of motor accidents. The fair provides Flynn with the canvas to develop a series of picaresque characters, including the obligatory dwarf who has a bigger role to play in the mystery than initially meets the eye.

What starts Bathurst off on his trail to solving the shenanigans centring on the Purple Calf is a series of three seemingly unconnected motor accidents, in each of which a young woman is found dead near the vehicle with horrific injuries. Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, thinks they are just tragic accidents, but Bathurst, as his wont, thinks that not only are they suspicious but also that they are linked in some way. Determined to prove Kemble wrong, he sets out to untangle the mystery.

There are a couple of promising leads. The motor accidents take place near the encampment of the travelling fair. Coincidence or a common theme? On the bodies of the three female victims are found coins, but they are only coppers. What was the significance of this? The circumstances of the death of a fourth victim seem at odds with the identified pattern surrounding the other victims. Does this mean that Bathurst has been barking up the wrong tree with his carefully formulated theories?

The old legal principle “exceptio probat regulam” convinces Bathurst that the unfortunate Rosa is an outlier and that her death has nothing to do with the matter in hand. In fact, it rather reinforces his theories. Emboldened, with help from some companions he has picked up along the way and with the sterling assistance of his old policing friends, MacMorran and Norris, he undertakes an audacious raid on the fair. Not only does Bathurst save Margaret Fletcher from a gruesome death, but he solves the mystery of how the victims suffered their gruesome injuries. The American title for the book, as often is the way, The Ladder of Death, rather gives the game away.

There is too much going on off stage in this story for my liking, especially in the resolution of what was really going on at the Purple Calf and how it related to the fair. I had worked out that L’Estrange and Lafferty, the eminence grise of the fair and his sidekick, and the two Brailsfords, seemingly friendly individuals who had imposed their presence on Bathurst, had some connection – Flynn pays homage to Conan Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Lip here – but money counterfeiting and inheritance protection were beyond my ken.

The fair allowed for an ingenious murder method, but it all seemed an extraordinary amount of effort to achieve something that could have been done more easily. Then again, Bathurst would not have had the opportunity to show his genius and we would not have had an entertaining enough story, even though it does not hit the heights Flynn can achieve.

The Bath Mysteries

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.