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.