Tag Archives: The Dark Garden

Information Received

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.

The Dark Garden

The Dark Garden – E R Punshon

This is the 16th book in Ernest Punshon’s Bobby Owen series, set in June 1940 and published in 1941, and is set in Wychshire, to whose force Bobby Owen has been seconded from Scotland Yard. As there is a war on, we find him short-handed and struggling to keep up with the paperwork that the new wartime regulations bring along with them. He has little time for a local farmer, Osman Ford, who alleges that the local solicitor, Nathaniel Anderson, is refusing to hand over to him the money from his wife’s legacy and believes that it has been misappropriated. Ford gives the impression of being a hasty, intemperate man.

A little later, Anderson is found dead with a bullet lodged in the back of his head. Has Ford taken his revenge, knowing that the other partner would be more sympathetic to releasing the money? What seems, initially, a fairly simple case becomes more complex at every turn. It seems that Anderson was not a popular man, had his own dark secret (he was living in sin with a girl from the office, Anne Earle (gasp!) and there were several in his office who had a grudge against him and a credible motive for doing away with him. Owen has his work cut out to make sense of the web of intrigue and, given his staffing problems, has to do much of the leg work himself. Money, though, is the root of all evil and following it may just hold the key to the mystery.

In truth, I sensed who the killer was fairly early on in the course of the story, despite Punshon’s best efforts to throw unexpected twists into the narrative. From what seemed a fairly unpromising premise, he did manage to hold my interest as Owens investigations threw up more motives and secrets in a community that was full of characters seething with passions, obsessions, and jealousies. It read more as a thriller than a straight-forward piece of detective fiction and was none the worse for that.

There were two features in the book that rescued it from being just an OK novel. The first was the denouement which was a well-written and dramatic set piece in which all the key suspects, including the culprit, were, somewhat improbably, blundering around in the dark in a deserted garden. There were lashings of melodrama and even a little humour, whether intentional or not, as Owen finally pulls all the pieces together and makes sense of it all.

The other was the character of Anne Earle. Her lover had been killed and she was determined to bring his killer to justice, even if she had to do it herself. An intense, spirited woman who, rather like a Fury from Greek myth, will stop at nothing. Her story is more complex, though, than she realises, and its resolution is the sort of material that Sophocles and Euripides would have made a masterpiece of.

Punshon is a sadly neglected writer and his Bobby Owen stories provide the sort of escapism that appeals even to a modern readership. Dean Street Press are to be commended for plucking him out of obscurity with their reissues.