A review of Information Received by E R Punshon
Being somewhat anally obsessive, these days I tend to read detective series in chronological order. It allows me to get an insight into how the author develops their style and their principal character. However, with E R Punshon I dived in halfway through his Bobby Owen series with The Dark Garden from 1941 and worked my way through to the 1948 novel, The House of Godwinsson. Now was the time, I thought, to go to the start of the series, Information Received, published originally in 1933 and reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press.
The first thing that struck me was the similarity with Basil Thomson’s Richardson’s First Case, both of which feature a rookie copper setting out on their path to greatness, and both, curiously, published in 1933. I wonder which one got there first. While Thomson’s approach is more procedure based, Punshon takes a more literary approach to introducing his protagonist who will see him through 35 books over twenty-three years and makes for a more satisfying read.
Like Richardson, Owen is simply a bobby on the beat, rather bored with his lot. He does have that happy knack, though, of being in the right place at the right time, being on the scene when the body of Sir Christopher Clarke is discovered, and the initiative to follow leads with or without official sanction. Owen, too, sufficiently impresses his superiors to achieve a transfer to CID.
One of the delights of the book is the developing relationship between Owen and Superintendent Mitchell, sufficiently long in the tooth to recognise that there is a spark worth developing in the youngster. Beneath his gruff exterior and teasing demeanour – he delights in playing a practical joke on his junior and is not loathe to put him in his place – there is a friendly, father figure. I shall be interested to see how that plays out as the series progresses. It will bear some looking into, as the Superintendent might say.
The plot is quite complicated as there are two separate crimes for the police to solve, although at the outset that is not immediately evident. For an ardent reader of detective fiction, the identity of the murderer of the financier, Sir Christopher Clarke, is not too difficult to spot. There is a tell-tale trope which seems to establish an alibi but doesn’t when investigated. Continuous noise emanating from a room always puts me on the alert. Curiously, this as the basis for an alibi is not challenged and the resolution of the murder of Clarke is reliant upon a long, written confession. There is a danger of viewing these plot devices with jaundiced modern eyes when, in fact, they were fresh and novel when used.
The other part of the puzzle, the almost simultaneous robbery of Clarke’s safe which leads to discoveries of financial malpractice and leading to murder, an attempt to frame an innocent, speedy and clandestine marriages and a dramatic trap with fatal consequences, receives the lion’s share of the attention. It offered more possibilities for red herrings and dramatic tension, but leaves the book feeling somewhat unbalanced, as though Punshon realised that the plot had become too unwieldy for the size of book he had in mind and that the Marsden/Carsley part of the story offered more dramatic possibilities and opportunities for red herrings.
The story starts with two theatre tickets from which Clarke recoils. They hold the key to his murder as they are for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In fact, his murder is Hamlet in reverse, a clever device on Punshon’s part, although he doesn’t make as much of it as he might have done. One note that surprises this reader was that Shakespeare was not very popular in the early 1930s, perhaps a result of having been force fed to unwilling pupils at school.
I enjoyed the book, as I always do with Punshon, and I’m sure that if I had not already done so, it would have tempted me to explore the series.