Tag Archives: E R Punshon

The Dusky Hour

A review of The Dusky Hour by E R Punshon

This is the ninth in Punshon’s Bobby Owen series, also known as Death in the Chalkpits, originally published in 1937 and reissued by Dean Street Press. The young Detective-Sergeant begins to come into his own, helped by the fact that the complexities of the case cause his Chief Constable, Colonel Warden, to have something akin to a nervous breakdown, allowing the young whippersnapper to resolve the case in his own inimitable way. As we come to expect with Punshon, there is a glorious set piece towards the end, when all the suspects slug it out and Owen reveals that he has skills which might win him a crown at the Police Boxing Championships.

What starts off as a simple enough incident – a man has been shot twice and his body is found in a car which has been pushed over into a chalk pit – turns into a complex tale of financial swindling, illustrating that there is no honour among thieves. The plot is more complex than some of Punshon’s featuring murder, share-pushing, where mugs are found to buy shares in worthless companies, card sharps, false identities, marriage proposals, American connections, and vendettas. The holy grail that a couple of gangs of criminals and members of the family who originally owned them are after are some bearer bonds worth a small fortune.

Punshon offers an interesting insight to a particular type of criminal who is prepared to play a long game, sowing the seeds of a plot, allowing it to mature, and then strike when the victim is hooked in. The rewards that such stings can generate, if the plot is successful, more than compensates for the long gestation period of the plan.

Each of the prime suspects, and there are a number of them, is keen to appear helpful to the authorities by explaining where they were and what they were doing around the critical point. Each seems to have a clear alibi and each of them, helpfully but to the growing despair of Colonel Warden, provides their own theory as to what happened and whom they believe the prime suspect to be. There is a section of the book where the investigators are passed form pillar to post. No wonder Warden gave up, leaving Owen with the freedom to pursue his own theories and cut the Gordian knot.

The alibis are some of the oddest that I have come across in Golden Age detective fiction, including a bull photographed in a certain field at a certain time, a hat which had only been delivered that day, and a cat spotted causing a traffic accident. The moral of the story is that if you are going to hand over evidence to the police, make sure that it suits your cause.

Once again, Punshon uses Owen to cast doubts upon the effectiveness of capital punishment and the young officer espouses the shocking thought that officers should have a warrant to search a property, something that many stories spawned by the genre cheerfully ignore but given especial emphasis when a chauffeur puts the police in their place when they arrive without the relevant piece of paper. This is symptomatic of Punshon’s socialist leanings which are allowed to peep through from time to time, especially when he pokes fun at Conservative views and prejudices.

In what is a complicated plot, perhaps overly so requiring a long explanation of how it all fits together at the end, Punshon manages to maintain pace and interest. The narrative has a rhythm of its own, his language less florid than in some of his earlier works, and the story builds up to a dramatic finale. I did spot the culprit but to Punshon’s credit he did make me wonder whether I was right at times.

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 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.

Death Comes To Cambers

A review of Death comes to Cambers by E R Punshon

Death comes to Cambers, the sixth in Punshon’s Bobby Owen series, originally published in 1935 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, is another one of those books with a death follows the detective theme. Bobby Owen is spending a weekend at the country pile of Lady Cambers along with his grandmother, Lady Hirlpool, ostensibly to advise her on improving the security of her valuable collection of jewels. Bobby’s aristocratic heritage is alluded to en passant in earlier and later books, but this is the first time it is overtly part of the plotting.

Inevitably, the weekend is disrupted when the body of Lady Cambers is found in the grounds – she has been strangled – and it is later discovered that her jewellery has been stolen. As he is on the scene, Scotland Yard agree to Bobby being co-opted to help the local police, led by Colonel Lawson and his uninspiring yes man of an Inspector, in unravelling what is going on.

For a tale consisting of one murder and a robbery and from the pen of a writer who is known for his direct, no nonsense style, it is an unusually long book and one which really only picks up pace in the latter stages when Bobby frees himself from the constraints of the local investigation, goes solo, and as well as preventing the wrong person from being arrested, thus saving Lawson’s bacon, he reveals the murderer and recovers the jewels. It is a well-constructed plot and there are no loose ends and there is even an amusing and ingenious attempt to create an alibi by the murderer, eschewing mechanical contraptions in favour of harnessing the power of nature. I am no sure it would be that effective, but it caused me to smile.

What contributes to the book’s length is the marvellous array of characters that Punshon has interwoven into the story, most of whom are potential suspects – there are ten in all – and all with varying degrees of motive to do away with the old lady. She uses her wealth to win friends and gain influence, but once they have accepted her silver, she expects them to do as she bids. Lady Cambers wants to interfere in her nephew’s marriage plans and to send her latest protégé, a shopkeeper-cum-amateur archaeologist, Deene, off to the Americas with her maid, Emmers, to avert a brewing storm in the village.

Deene is a fascinating character, convinced that his diggings, financed by Lady Cambers, will unearth the secrets of man’s development, a genetic mutation to the shape of a hand. He anticipates that when he finds the archaeological proof he is searching for, it will make his name and create a bigger wave than Darwin’s evolutionary theories. This put him at odds with the local vicar who is fundamentalist in his views, a creationist who excommunicates Deene and threatens to do the same to Lady Cambers. Punshon is clearly on Deene’s side in the debate and has fun in exploring and testing their theories and preconceptions.

The maid, Emmers, can be seen as a proto feminist. She knows her own mind and does not let her lowly social status stand in her way. She positively bristles when Lawson does not give her the respect that she feels she is due. Then there are a couple of shady characters, Jones, who sees an opportunity to make some money by blackmail, and an American millionaire who is anxious to acquire Lady Cambers’ Cleopatra pearl, as he has the other, to make a matching pair. Lord Cambers, estranged from his wife, and having an affair with a girl from the village, is pressed for cash. His wife’s removal would ease his predicament and he was scene in the vicinity of the crime.

There are red herrings galore and Owen and the local police are taken down many a byway until a confession, some mice, a cipher, and a pen with unusual ink bring clarity, at least in the redoubtable Bobby’s mind, relegating the jewellery theft to a piece of opportunism rather than something central to the murder.           

It is an enjoyable tale which, perhaps, could have been shorter, but Punshon does produce a well-plotted mystery and enjoys shining a light on the mores and attitudes of his time. He is a sadly underrated writer and deserves to be better known.

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.