A review of Death Among The Sunbathers by E R Punshon
Bobby Owen, Bobby Owen, wherefore art thou, Bobby Owen? The reader of this rather odd book, the second in Punshon’s Bobby Owen series, published originally in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, may well be driven to quoting Juliet’s famous line, as the key character is nowhere to be seen. His presence is psychological, he is lurking in the background, ever watchful and making the suspects uneasy. There’s always Bobby Owen. It does strike me as a rather bold, if not reckless step, to make a character around whom you are building a series so invisible.
It is also strange that a lowly Detective Constable, for that is what Owen is, could have such a hold on the potential culprits and impact upon their thoughts and deeds. It is also odd, even though he is taken under Superintendent Mitchell’s wing, that he should be allowed such latitude. It is what comes of having a Varsity education, even if it is Oxford. Inspector Ferris still thinks of him as a whippersnapper, who has been promoted too quickly for his and the force’s own good.
What we have instead, is a character called Bob’s-the-Boy, a former convict who worms his way into the trust of the suspects and ostensibly helps them out of their fix. Punshon clearly had some fun in drawing this character and much of the interest and humour in what is otherwise a rather pedestrian story revolves around this picaresque character. Is he, though, what he purports to be?
Naturism or sunbathing in puris naturalibus, as the proprietors of Leadeane Grange coyly call it, was another obsession of the late 1920s and 30s and is used as a theme in several crime novels of the time. It allows the writer to put together a collection of eccentric characters and to poke fun at their rather harmless pastime. It leaves the writer nowhere to hide, though, and rarely are the novels successful. This can certainly be said of Punshon’s effort.
A young journalist, Jo Frankland, is murdered as she is leaving the naturist colony. As a journalist who specialised in scoops and as the activities at Leadeane Grange had already been done to death, her editor was surprised that her investigations had taken her there. Naturism, in fact, has nothing to do with a tale which boils down to the insurance underwriter’s stuff of nightmares, arson and fraud to relieve money problems. The reader of the story is left to think that the setting of the story is irrelevant and just an attempt at a little sensationalism. Punshon is better than that as his later novels show.
Structurally, the book also seems a little odd with a significant shift in emphasis midway through. When you reach the denouement, you realise why this is necessary, but it does jar on the reader. I am being unduly harsh about this book because I am a fan of Punshon and am disappointed when one of his books fails to reach his usual high standards.
The book is entertaining enough, although more of a whydunit than a whodunit and an excursion in discovering just who the ubiquitous Bob’s-the-Boy really is. There are moments of humour and Punshon’s characterisation is sharp. The mystery element is fairly mundane, but despite this there is a germ of a good story here. It bears looking into.