E.R. Punshon | Continuing Characters
Sgt. Bell novels: Genius in Murder
Bobby Owen novels: Information Received | Crossword Mystery | The Conquerer Inn | Night's Cloak | Dark Is the Clue
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
E.R. PunshonErnest Robertson Punshon, better known as E.R. Punshon, wrote mysteries, mainstream novels and plays.
Commentary on E.R. Punshon:
- A mystery fiction bibliography and links to Ernest Robertson Punshon reviews can be found at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
- Mary Reed's review of E.R. Punshon's The Bittermeads Mystery is at Mystery*File. This also contains a detailed bibliography.
- William F. Deeck's review of E.R. Punshon's Information Received is at Mystery*File.
- TomCat's articles are at Beneath the Stains of Time.
- John's reviews at Pretty Sinister Books.
- Anthony Boucher occasionally discussed E.R. Punshon, in his collected reviews from the 1940's called The Anthony Boucher Chronicles. He praised Punshon's characterization, mystery construction and rich use of detail.
- A profile by Gavin L. O'Keefe is at Punshon's current publisher Ramble House.
Continuing CharactersErnest Robertson Punshon wrote five books about Sgt. Bell (1929-1932). He then developed a new and far more glamorous series protagonist, Scotland Yard Detective-Constable Bobby Owen. Owen appeared in around 35 books (1933-1956).
Owen is an Oxford educated young man who has been forced to take up police work by the Depression. He seems like a cross between the Scotland Yard heroes loved by the Freeman Wills Crofts school, and the sort of gentlemanly figures found in writers like Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. Edgar Wallace also included a young policeman with an upper crust background in Sergeant Sir Peter (1929 - 1930). Unlike the unglamorous Sgt. Bell, Owen is handsome, well educated and socially sophisticated. He is much more of what Englishmen of the time would consider a romantic lead. He also seems younger, and much less experienced as a detective than the highly intelligent Sgt. Bell.
Owen has a superior, too: Superintendent Mitchell of Scotland Yard. Unlike Bell's obnoxious and none-too-skilled Chief Inspector Carter, who is always grabbing credit for his work, Mitchell is a decent person, although intimidating at times. Mitchell is also openly skeptical of the police system, more than Owen is, and often gets off humorous one-liners containing Punshon's satirical thrusts.
Genius in Murder
Mystery PlotE.R. Punshon's Genius in Murder (1932) builds up a pleasantly complex, labyrinthine plot, then spoils it by having a perfunctory solution lacking all ingenuity. The book cannot be recommended, although parts of it make pleasant reading, with much satiric sparkle and gusto. It is a Sgt. Bell novel.
Some of his plot twists are surrealistic. There is a pleasant sense that genuinely odd, unexpected things are coming out of nowhere. The connections that keep getting established between different sections of the plot, and remote characters in the book, are also fun reading. There is a rich history of surrealism in detective fiction, one that that cuts across all schools of mystery literature.
Realist School TraditionsPunshon's book has some of the earmarks of the Freeman Wills Crofts school:
- Its detectives are Scotland Yard policemen; they are not eccentric and use plenty of leg work and investigative persistence.
- The admirably complex plot, made up of a combined, interlocking series of crimes, resembles somewhat the jigsaw construction of Crofts.
- Mild attention is paid throughout to alibis and to alibi busting.
- SPOILERS. There is some impersonation in the story, and some concerns over a character's dubious identity - this latter material involving the printer Mr. Codrington is among the book's best.
- A villainous fence (a "receiver" of stolen jewelry) in the tale reminds one a little bit of such characters in Crofts, although we never get an elaborate Croftsian criminal Scheme.
- The early scenes in the book involving a family crypt near a country house mansion recall Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke's Discovery (1932).
- These scenes have one of Freeman's common plot motivations: the disposal of the body.
- A later setting in an isolated woods near the house recalls Freeman and his fondness for country paths.
- A printer character recalls Freeman's many craftsmen. Like Freeman's skilled workers, he is expert at techniques (start of Chapter 12).
- There is a landscape painter - another Freeman favorite.
- There is also a secret code in the story - Punshon manages to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.
The Police: Social SatireWe get a satiric inside look at life in Scotland Yard in the 1930's, which Punshon depicts as involving endless jockeying for position among upper level mediocrities, while lower-downs do all the hard work and actual thinking. This satiric skepticism is very different from the idealizing of the police we get in Crofts. Indeed, Punshon's bubbling comic tone and sustained comedy of manners resemble such intuitionist writers as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh more that it does Freeman Wills Crofts and his school. Both the lower-downs at the Yard like Sgt. Bell, and the lower and lower middle class characters among the suspects like young Codrington (Chapters 17, 25), are seen as engaging in all sorts of sneaky survival strategies to help them cope with an intransigently hostile British society and its upper crust rulers. Punshon shows a lot of sneaking sympathy for such characters. As in Crofts, the viewpoint is closer to the middle class and tradesman than it is to the aristocracy. There is a strong sense of dissatisfaction in Punshon's work, a sense that Britain could be a much better place for the small businessman.
The depiction of workers like Sgt. Bell being much better at their job than their unskilled bosses, anticipates Punshon's interest in Night's Cloak in the Common Wealth movement, which advocated worker control and ownership of businesses.
Background: Business and Finance, Monopoly CapitalismThere is a Background of sorts - many of the characters are involved in a stock transaction involving the Crude Metals Corporation, and we get an inside view of some of the financial and business practices of the era. This sort of detailed look at British business is a Crofts specialty.
The Crude Metals Corporation is engaged in ruthless "monopoly capitalism" (Chapter 6). Monopolies were (and are) seen by liberal social critics as especially harmful to society. Genius in Murder is thus a look at capitalism and business at its worst. Red Harvest (1927) by Dashiell Hammett also offers a critique of monopoly capitalism. Anti-trust enthusiasm, designed to break up monopolies, would soon reach its peak in US history, in the 1930's.
Social Satire: The Press, the Police and the RichThere is some devastating satire about how the British Press fawns over the rich (Chapter 6). Particularly notable is the way wealthy speculators are treated as financial geniuses. The mere fact that they have made a lot of money proves they are brilliant. This is still a prominent feature of the US business news today. The businessman in Genius in Murder is a swindler of the worst sort. But he is treated with fawning respect, as a "financial wizard".
He is also depicted by the Press as the epitome of morals and British character - partly because of his conservative politics. This is also part of the modern US press treatment of the rich. No matter how morally rotten or horrifically incompetent they are, both Republicans and the business press will treat them as geniuses, saints and "job creators".
Particularly disturbing is the way authorities block investigation of the rich. Scotland Yard gets into big trouble because they investigate the financier (Chapter 14). They unfortunately wind up being unable to prove their case against this man. According to Genius in Murder, if the police investigate a businessman or financier, and if they are unable to prove a case, the businessman and the British Government will treat this as an outrage. The financier in Genius in Murder is an obvious scoundrel and swindler, who systematically engages in irregular, suspicious business practices. No matter: if the police cannot prove this, the Government will come down on them like a ton of bricks, for even looking at this man. SPOILERS. The Government is prepared to mass fire all the police involved, and reorganize Scotland Yard, just because they dared to investigate this swindler.
The Press has similar attitudes. They are prepared to crucify Scotland Yard in print, for even daring to investigate this financier (briefly noted in Chapter 16).
Society: Traditional vs ModernThe opening of Chapter 2 of Genius in Murder contains a funny but sympathetic look at how modern technology has transformed the life of a "typical" English village, putting its once isolated inhabitants in touch with the world. Such high tech media as radio and movies are emphasized, along with that favorite mode of transportation of the Realist School, motorcycles. Interestingly, Punshon mentions that many of the radio sets in the village are hand made. This is an impressive testimony to the skills of the working class. The enthusiasm of the British working class for cinema gets mentioned again in Information Received (start of Chapter 18).
J.J. Connington'sThe Sweepstake Murders (1931) also looks at modernization and cinema coming to rural Britain, but less sympathetically.
Punshon is a bit of an anti-Connington in his social attitudes. Not only do the two writers offer different takes on the cinema and technology coming to rural Britain. But Connington glorifies his high-ranking police detective for outclassing his subordinates in skill, while Punshon's talentless officials exploit the abilities of lower downs like Sgt. Bell. Connington's grim seriousness also is the opposite of Punshon's satiric mockery, and tone of continuous comedy.
Police ProcedureA limiting feature in Punshon's work, and oddly enough, in Crofts' too: the amount of actual detective work done seems limited to the personal efforts of one policeman. In the mainly American Van Dine school writers, there are whole teams of highly effective police, who vacuum up huge quantities of information about the suspects. They can also call upon police in other regions to carry out investigations. By contrast, here Sergeant Bell's own shoe leather is used to find anything out.So Bell is something of a one man band. The same often seem to be true of Crofts' Inspector French.
Although the police are much better human beings in Crofts' world, Inspector French too is good at politics, and knowing how to get along with his colleagues.
Mystery Plot: CoincidencesBIG SPOILERS in this section.
Genius in Murder has mountains of mystery plot. As the book itself notes, this plot is organized into a series of subplots, each with its own mystery and solution.
These subplots fall into two groups, according to my analysis. Evereything within each group is closely connected, but the two groups are largely distinct from each other and unrelated:
- Group 1: The first murder, the third murder, Ryder's company and its big business swindles.
- Group 2: The second murder, the Hyde Park arrest, the stolen necklace, the receiver of stolen goods (the fence) and intrigue around men named Codrington.
Some of these coincidental connections between the two groups are fairly acceptable:
- Both groups of crimes have the same master villain behind them. One can argue that this is plausible, since if a person commits one sinister crime, they are also likely to commit another. Also, this helps to unify Genius in Murder, since the detective and reader are looking for one main killer.
- The printer Mr. Smith turns out to be mildly involved with criminal activity from both groups of crimes. This is explained by saying Smith is acquainted with the chief villain, and employed by the villain in a number of capacities. This is plausible enough - but still something of a coincidence.
- Young stockbroker Mr. Codrington, mainly involved in Group 2, also happens to be a close personal friend of Sir Charles Benham from Group 1.
- Kenneth Benham, nephew of Sir Charles Benham from Group 1, just happens to show up by chance at the scene of the Hyde Park arrest from Group 2. The book explains that he was trying to track down Ryder - a decent enough explanation. Still, this is quite an unlikely event.
Aside from "who committed the crimes", the main mystery interest of Genius in Murder is explaining how the network of linked crimes are joined. Having many of the connections simply be unexplained coincidences is failed plotting.
Information ReceivedInformation Received (1933) is the first of many mystery novels starring policeman Bobby Owen, the series sleuth of Ernest Robertson Punshon. It also the first appearance of his Scotland Yard superior Superintendent Mitchell.
A Highly Conventional BookAfter a decent opening, Information Received becomes relentlessly bland, conventional and unimaginative, in its plot, suspects and settings. Because of this, it is boring and dull. Reading it can feel like being confined to a sensory deprivation tank.
Information Received has a generic setting: a millionaire's large house in the outskirts of London. Generic characters as suspects: various heirs and unhappy business opponents of the millionaire, all of whom become suspects after his murder. Generic business situation: a lawyer who might be embezzling his clients' money. You have read all of this many times before. These are banal ingredients of routine mystery fiction.
I have wondered if Punshon was deliberately trying to create a conventional detective story, when writing Information Received. Perhaps he wanted to move his writing into what he perceived as the mainstream of detective fiction in 1933.
Information Received is yet another British mystery taking place in the genteel suburb of Hampstead.
The Initial InvestigationAn above-average part of Information Received is the initial murder investigation (Chapters 3-6). Its virtues:
- It forms the first look at Punshon's series sleuths Bobby Owen and Superintendent Mitchell.
- It describes the discovery of the murder, and the police investigation.
- In addition to the main murder mystery, it sketches other subplots. SPOILERS: 1) the intruder who climbed over the wall, 2) the burglar who robbed the safe, 3) what caused the doctor to delay, 4) the mysterious elderly visitor and what he knew.
- It shows the architecture of the house, and the landscape of the house's yard and that of the house next door. While not brilliant, this is fun.
- A servants-eye-view of the households and situations. The servants are more interesting to read about, than the upper class suspects who dominate much of the rest of the novel.
- A later section (Chapter 19) also gives a vivid picture of Owen and Mitchell at work. And helps crystallize the above subplots. The section describes and praises relentless methodical police work - the sort of police work found in the Freeman Wills Crofts school.
- A search for a windmill (first part of Chapter 27) has a witty look at a library and the research queries it gets. Windmills are part of business aspects of rural life: something that will explored more deeply in The Conquerer Inn.
Society and SatireInformation Received is mainly lacking the social commentary and satire, found in other and better Punshon books such as Genius in Murder and Night's Cloak. There are some brief flashes of social depiction:
- The obnoxious, ruthless millionaire (start of Chapter 1) is a type that will return later in Punshon. He anticipates the more elaborately depicted millionaire in Night's Cloak. The millionaire congratulates himself on his "strength", and the "fear" he induces in other people. While the doctrines are not named, this can be seen as a satire on both Social Darwinism and Fascism. It can also be read as a put-down of the same worship of wealth and strength among today's libertarian conservatives. All of these philosophies think it is great for the strong to prey upon the weak.
- The millionaire's inane, almost content-free speech in favor of the gold standard (Chapter 3) is hailed by his fellow financiers. This satirically suggests that the rich get praised even when they lack accomplishment.
- A barmaid gets described with some comedy (start of Chapter 18). A barmaid will play a more substantial role in Night's Cloak.
- The brief satire on the training - or lack of it - of England's teachers is amusing (start of Chapter 3).
- So is the gibe about the British being better informed about horse racing than any other subject (start of Chapter 3).
Many of Punshon's acerbic, humorous remarks in Information Received are directed not at society, but at human nature and human foibles in general. I didn't find most of these to be very good.
Mystery Plot: A Failure of ImaginationVery little of the mystery plot is creative.
After reading the encounter in the pub (Chapter 15), I thought it was obvious who the murderer likely was. At the end, this suspicion was confirmed. I thought it was implausible that the police did not not immediately suspect the killer, too. Instead, the identity of the murderer is only revealed at the end, for a "surprise" solution.
The killer's alibi and the trick used to generate it, are old and obvious dodges. In fact, S.S. Van Dine was pleading for writers to stop using this ancient gimmick, in his anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) (see the last section of the Introduction). That was in 1928, five years before Information Received!
Two subplots have culprits revealed at the end of the story. In both cases, the culprit turns out to be the character most often mentioned as a suspect throughout the entire novel! This tracing the crime back to the Most Obvious Suspect shows a failure of imagination. BIG SPOILERS. We are referring to "who did the burglary?" and "who is the intruder who climbed over the wall and cut himself?".
Mystery Plot: Positive AspectsSPOILERS. The subplot mystery about the doctor and his delay in summoning help gets a logical answer. While no triumph, this is one of the better mystery problems in Information Received.
Halfway through the novel, Mitchell sets forth a list of unsolved mysteries (middle of Chapter 19). Such lists were a standard part of mystery fiction long before Punshon. They are usually fun to read, and this one is too.
The DetectivesThe best part of Information Received is its creation of Punshon's series detectives Bobby Owen and Superintendent Mitchell. They are pleasant to read about, and the book deserves credit for creating them. However, even this aspect of Information Received is pretty mild.
Information Received is not just the first book about Bobby Owen, but also what comic books call an "origin story". We learn about his background and career as a policeman (start of Chapter 3). However, we do not learn very much. Anyone who reads Information Received in hopes of getting a lot of information about Bobby Owen is going to be disappointed.
While Bobby Owen is a graduate of Oxford, he seems to have done little there but athletics.
SPOILERS. Edgar Wallace sometimes featured policemen impersonating playboys to keep nightclubs under surveillance: see The Green Archer (1928) (Chapters 3, 6). Bobby Owen rejects a similar role for himself (start of Chapter 3). Punshon seems to admire this. It perhaps suggests Owen's commendable desire to have no part in upper class lifestyles of leisure.
Crossword MysteryBobby Owen stars in Crossword Mystery (1934), by Ernest Robertson Punshon.
UndercoverThe first half of the novel features Owen's sleuthing at a country house. It is a comedy of manners in the tradition of Agatha Christie. These sections have plenty of charm. While Owen is a policeman, he is undercover here, and essentially operates in the same manner as the amateur sleuths beloved by Golden Age intuitionist writers.
Owen is pretending to be an upper class gentleman of leisure. This recalls him being asked to go undercover as a nightclub playboy in Information Received (Chapter 3): an assignment he soon turned down. However, the nightclub work in Information Received seems more self-indulgent than the active sleuthing in Crossword Mystery.
In both the Information Received and Crossword Mystery roles, the policeman wears fancy evening clothes. This glamorous touch recalls Rogue heroes, and the way they adopt the elegant clothes of the upper classes as part of their schemes.
Realist School TraditionsNumerous mysteries pile up; in the second half of the novel, these are eventually explained as being the result of various Croftsian Schemes. This second half of the work is darker in tone. It is much closer to the traditions of the Freeman Wills Crofts school. The seaside setting of the book, its detailed landscape topography complete with map, its occasional interest in alibis, radios and clocks, and the motorcycle ridden by hero Owen, also seem like Croftsian features.
Also involving Realist School traditions: the book contains a complete crossword puzzle, one in which clues to the mystery are concealed. It seems directly in the tradition of Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will" (1925). Even the sort of definitions used in the crosswords in Sayers' and Punshon's works seem similar. The 1948 British paperback edition of Crossword Mystery contains a brief rave review by Sayers praising E.R. Punshon's novels, by the way. This is probably an excerpt from one of Sayers' 1930's newspaper columns.
The subplot about the resort hotel seems directly anticipatory of the cruise ship sections in Crofts' Fatal Venture (1939) (known as Tragedy in the Hollow in the United States). It is hard to believe that Crofts did not read Punshon's story. So the influence between the two men runs both ways.
BackgroundCrossword Mystery continues some of the social and political points of view found in Genius in Murder. Once again, E.R. Punshon knows a lot about business practices of the time. The activities of the two brothers who are retired stockbrokers are at the center of the book's plot, as is a financial speculator who wants to build a large resort hotel.
Also in Punshon traditions: concern about lost business opportunities for Britain's lower and middle classes.
Punshon extends his satiric scalpel here to foreign regimes. The book's characters are horrified by the rise of both Communism and Fascism abroad. A late chapter in the work has a brief but savage satire of the then one-year-old Hitler regime in Germany.
There will be further negative references to Hitler and Stalin in Dictator's Way (1938) (Chapter 1).
Social SatireOn a far lighter note are touches of social satire. There are brief depictions of a gas station and a tea shop (Chapter 1). The language both businesses use to describe themselves is deftly evoked. This recalls a bit the verbally adroit look at a library and its patrons' requests in Information Received (start of Chapter 27).
The gibes about cavalry drill being seen as the needed background for police work (Chapter 1) recall similar satire about sports being seen as the only training needed for teaching, in Information Received (Chapter 3). Both suggest the 1930's British were more concerned with machismo than with professional skill or competence.
LandscapeBobby Owen first learns about the case in a garden (Chapters 1, 2). This recalls Information Received (Chapter 3) where Owen is introduced to the mystery while in the yard of a fancy house. Both areas are pleasant, almost festive, and make a contrast with dark events they introduce.
The Conquerer InnBobby Owen is the detective again in E.R. Punshon's The Conquerer Inn (1943).
The Conquerer Inn seems to be a fairly minor book. It has moments of interest.
Mystery Plot: The Murder MysteryThe Conquerer Inn has a number of subplots, that are not well-connected to each other.
The central murder plot doesn't show much imagination or ingenuity. Aspects of this central plot seem implausible, too. SPOILER. For example, a large sum of money is mysteriously found on the crime scene. At the end, this is "explained" as having been left behind by rattled, emotionally upset crooks who just forgot about it!
SPOILER. The Conquerer Inn of the title, is a wayside pub on a remote road, that has seen better days. It is the subject of the novel's opening chapters; much is made of the family that runs it; it is made to seem suspicious and at the heart of the mystery; and it gets the title of the book. But: at the book's end, it turns out to have nothing to do with the murder! Structurally this is odd. It seems almost like a cheat.
Mystery Plot: The Events at the InnThe strange goings-on at the Inn are the subject of a subplot mystery, the solution of which is revealed early on (see Fact 6 near the end of Chapter 14). A more fully detailed account of the solution appear later (Chapter 25). This subplot is the best mystery plotting in the novel:
- The solution surprised me.
- Also a good feature: various facts we've learned about the Inn turn out be be clues suggesting the solution.
Society: Traditional vs Modern, All BusinessThe Conquerer Inn centers on two contrasting groups, that seem like part of two different worlds:
- The Inn is a part of traditional, old rural England.
- The lorry (truck) companies down the road represent Modernity and Technology. They show the Modern Britain of commerce, which uses technology like the lorries to support business. Lorries show up in other Realist School British mysteries such as The Davidson Case (1929) by John Rhode and The Bishop's Crime (1940) by H.C. Bailey.
I found the characterizations and settings at the Inn, to be more creative than those at the lorry companies. This should not be read as any sort of negative comment by me on lorries in general or modernity - merely a view that E.R. Punshon has been more successful in the sections about the Inn.
Both the Inn and the lorries have in common, that they are part of the transportation infrastructure of Britain. The Inn feeds and puts up travelers; the lorries transport goods. Both are serious business enterprises. The Conquerer Inn differs from the cliche version of Golden Age mysteries set in rural England: there are no country houses, quaint villages, vicarages. Just these businesses.
Owen is stationed in fictitious Midwych County, apparently in the highly industrialized North of England. The town of Midwych is the center of a large industrial district. The town of Midwych is referred to, but almost all action in The Conquerer Inn takes place near desolate rural roads. An interesting passage (start of Chapter 1) states that Owen's police assistant, young Sgt. Payne, got a superb education in the Midwych primary and secondary schools. (Midwych seemingly has no connection with the later, popular science fiction novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) by John Wyndham.)
The lorry headquarters is in a large, formerly private house and grounds, that have been sold off and converted to business use by the truckers. The house used to be owned, not by an aristocrat, but by a "merchant prince": one of many businessmen who made fortunes in Britain's Industrial North. The merchant prince was stationed in Midwych. It is unclear whether the house in actually in Midwych, or out somewhere in the countryside. We learn a lot about its large-scale lorry operations, but nothing about its neighbors or locale.
An Army OfficerAnother suspect is an unlikable British Army officer, Captain Wintle. We see a little of his Army camp. It is odd to see a British officer made out to be such a suspicious-looking and unpleasant person, right in the middle of World War II. Usually mysteries published during the war showed patriotic enthusiasm for everyone in uniform.
The operating word here might be "officer" - as opposed to "enlisted man". Some of Punshon's civilian books like Genius in Murder show lower-downs who work for a living desperately trying to cope with rotten, exploitative superiors. Captain Wintle similarly commands lower-downs in the Army. He might be a portrait of a British-officer-as-No-Good.
Politics: ForeignersOne of the characters associated with the lorries is Irish, and has little liking for the British. Anthony Boucher thought his political depiction (Chapter 31) was one of the best things about The Conquerer Inn. I am not so sure. I am not an expert of the politics of Irish-British relations, and not qualified to judge this book. But I suspect on general grounds that the real relations between the Irish and the British have to be more complex and nuanced than they way they are depicted in The Conquerer Inn. (Earlier, comic sentences in Information Received (Chapter 3) named Irish villains among the people that stuck-in-a-dull-assignment cop Owen did NOT meet. This is supposed to be comedy - but it too offers a one-dimensional look at the Irish.)
The account of the Irish is briefly extended to other nationalities (a paragraph in Chapter 35). This account is disastrously poor and implausible, with political allegations that seem dubious.
Night's CloakBobby Owen returns in Ernest Robertson Punshon's Night's Cloak (1944). Bobby Owen is an Inspector by this time, and functioning as a policeman using routine to investigate a crime, in the Freeman Wills Crofts manner.
Mystery PlotThis minor mystery has complex goings-on, but shows little real imagination or cleverness of situation or solution. It is one of those books with lots of suspects wandering around the crime scene before the murder.
A subplot with some mild ingenuity: the mystery of how the local barmaid is involved with the plot. Punshon comes up with a different sort of connection than I suspected. Like Genius in Murder, this shows Punshon's skill in connecting disparate characters. SPOILERS. There is some broad similarity in how the Hyde Park woman connects with other people in Genius in Murder, and the connection of the barmaid in Night's Cloak.
The puzzling alibi of the woman secretary also gets a mildly inventive explanation.
Politics: Worker Control, The Working ClassOne of the suspects is involved with a radical political movement, that promotes worker ownership of businesses. E.R. Punshon is mildly sympathetic, but also a bit non-committal. Owen is unsure, for example, whether the movement is "left, right or centre" (Chapter 5), and the reader of Night's Cloak never learns either.
The radical movement, Common Wealth, was a real-life left wing political party, then at the height of its influence. After the war ended in 1945, much of its membership would abandon it, in favor of the Labour party. The two parties differed, in that Common Wealth advocated worker control and ownership, while Labour favored nationalization and government control of enterprises. For a list of mystery writers examining cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, please see my article on Ellery Queen.
The best political part of Night's Cloak is not the political movement, strictly speaking, but a look at the hard lot of the British working class that caused the suspect to join the movement. This section (Chapter 13) has some emotionally powerful writing. It partly bases arguments in favor of better treatment of the working class, in their fine performance in defending Britain in World War II. Similarly, left-of-center Americans argued that black Americans deserved better treatment, because of their contributions during the war.
Social Satire and Comedy: A Gay Subtext?The novel opens with a brief inside look at the local police politics of a country police Inspector and his men, and their relationship with less-than-pleasant local bigwigs (Chapter 1). This look is both comic and realistic. It is in the Punshon tradition of showing likable lower-downs coping with comically sinister bosses playing political games.
Eventually we get a detailed comic look at a sinister scam perpetrated by the local business millionaire on Inspector Bobby Owen himself (Chapter 4, start of Chapter 11). This has elements of the "clever swindler" tradition.
Also fun: the easy chairs the same nasty business executive reserves in his study for visitors, designed to place them at a disadvantage (start of Chapter 3, start of Chapter 4). This shows such chairs were not invented in Wall Street in the 1980's, where they were much commented on in books and magazine articles, but were already in use in 1940's Britain. See:
- Howard Kaplan, "Confessions of a Headhunter" (GQ magazine, July 1988), which describes such attractive looking but tricky chairs used by a Wall Street corporate recruiter.
- The chair in the Dean's office in the film comedy The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963).
- The "deep chairs" in the study in Death of a Tall Man (1946) by Frances and Richard Lockridge (middle of Chapter 5). Policeman Lt. Weigand involuntarily takes time to get out of one when the lights go out, causing him to lose a suspect.
These social satire and comedy elements have little connection with the mystery plot. Instead they show the conditions under which Bobby Owen and the police work.
These satire passages can be read as having a gay subtext. They can be seen as mildly masochistic comic fantasies, in which Bobby Owen is put under the control of a more powerful man.
There are occasionally references to LGBT characters in Punshon. The startling-but-brief suggestion that a lipstick found at a crime scene might have been used by a man is in The Dusky Hour (1938) (first part of Chapter 5).
The InventorThe young scientist-inventor is depicted as willing to do anything, perhaps even murder, to get funds to pursue his invention. This is a type and a motive that also appears in Agatha Christie.
On a more positive note, the inventor is handsome and classy, and also functions as the book's "young hero", even if he is possibly a murder suspect.
Dark Is the ClueBobby Owen is the detective again in E.R. Punshon's Dark Is the Clue (1955), one of the last books in the Owen series. It's a minor book. Parts have charm, but it doesn't succeed as a whole.
Realist School TraditionsThe Greek statue that is a running motif in the book, is an example of the Realist School's interest in antiquities, especially R. Austin Freeman.
The path in the countryside is also a motif common in Freeman.
Mystery Plot: Who Done ItBIG SPOILERS. An early conversation between Bobby Owen and a suspect offers numerous broad clues that the suspect is guilty (Chapter 2). The suspect's dialogue is full of statements that can be read in two ways. These slyly suggest that the suspect is laughing at Owen, and offering constant digs at him. Unfortunately, to me this dialogue seemed an "obvious" indication of who the killer is, right at the start of the novel. This "spoiled" the mystery for me, revealing the book's bad guy right at the start of the story.
This conversation (Chapter 2) has charm, and is full of skillfully written dialogue, with their double meanings. The conversation is fun to read, and in-and-of-itself is good. My objection is only that it reveals the book's villain right at the start of the novel.
SPOILERS. The clue involving the gang wearing gloves (set forth in Chapter 2, explained near start of Chapter 34) is decently done. It offers a good clue to the killer's identity. The clue is in fact double:
- It offers a direct indication of who the killer is.
- And it gives a revealing meaning to one of the killer's statements (Chapter 2), marking this statement as an attempt at mis-directing Bobby Owen.
Mystery Plot: Hiding PlaceOne of the better mystery plot ideas involves where the villain is hiding the money (explained in Chapter 34). This is fairly clued: a positive feature.
LandscapeWynne's estate recalls the yard of the house next door in Information Received. Both:
- Have fruit trees that are the targets of young boys who want to steal the fruit.
- Have formidable sharp objects on the walls to prevent theft.
Politics: Fingerprints and Government SurveillanceA brief discussion has Bobby Owen saying it would easier to catch criminals if Scotland Yard had fingerprints of everyone in Britain (Chapter 2). Another character immediately points out that this would be bad for society as a whole. And Owen agrees. This discussion interestingly anticipates today's debates over government surveillance and monitoring of citizens.
ER Punshon Bibliography
UK First Edition Books
Series Character Inspector Carter - Sergeant Bell - Bobby OwenBuy Books by E.R. Punshon
The following bibliography contains the criminous titles
We are interesting in buying pre 1940 UK firsts in dust jacket
If you have anything you may consider selling mystery fiction wanted
|Title||Publisher||Date||Issue Points - Notes|
|Earth's Great Lord||Ward||1901|
|The Mystery of Lady Isobel||Hurst & Blackett||1907|
|The Spin of the Coin||Hurst & Blackett||1908|
|The glittering Desire||Ward||1910|
|Arrows of Chance||Ward Lock||1917|
|The Solitary House||Ward||1919|
|The Woman's Footprint||Hodder||1919|
|The Ruby Bracelet||Newnes||c1920||not dated, small novella booklet, priced at 2d|
|The Bittermeads Mystery||Knopf||1922||No UK edition listed in BL under this title|
|The Unexpected Legacy||Benn||1929||Black cloth, orange lettering. DJ 7/6|
|Proof Counter Proof||Benn||1931||Black/orange. Jan 31. DJ 7/6|
|The Cottage Murder||Benn||1931||Black cloth, orange lettering. Not in ECB. Only 1933 cheap edition|
|Genius in Murder||Benn||1932||Black cloth, orange lettering.Feb 32. DJ 7/6|
|Truth Came Out||Benn||1932||Black cloth, orange lettering. Sept 32. DJ 7/6|
|Information Received||Benn||1933||Black cloth, orange lettering. DJ 7/6|
|Death Among the Sunbathers||Benn||1934||Black cloth, orange lettering. March 34. DJ 7/6|
|Crossword Mystery||Gollancz||1934||Black cloth, orange lettering. May 34. DJ 7/6|
|Mystery Villa||Gollancz||1934||"". Nov 34. DJ 7/6|
|Death of a Beauty Queen||Gollancz||1935||"". May 35. DJ 7/6|
|Death Comes to Cambers||Gollancz||1935||"". Nov 35. DJ 7/6|
|The Bath Mysteries||Gollancz||1936||"". DJ 7/6|
|Mystery of Mr Jessop||Gollancz||1937||"". Feb 37. DJ 7/6|
|The Dusky Hour||Gollancz||1937||"". Sept 37. DJ 7/6|
|Dictator's Way||Gollancz||1938||"". Feb 38. DJ 7/6|
|Comes a Stranger||Gollancz||1938||"". Sept 38. DJ 7/6|
|Suspects Nine||Gollancz||1939||"". May 39. DJ 7/6|
|Murder Abroad||Gollancz||1939||"". Nov 39. DJ 7/6|
|Four Strange Women||Gollancz||1940||ditto. DJ 7/6|
|Ten Star Clues||Gollancz||1941||Blue cloth, blue lettering. Jan 41. DJ 7/6|
|The Dark Garden||Gollancz||1941||Blue cloth, blue lettering. Oct 41. DJ 8/-|
|Diabolic Candelabra||Gollancz||1942||Blue cloth, blue lettering. DJ 8/6|
|The Conqueror Inn||Gollancz||1943||DJ 8/6|
|Night's Cloak||Gollancz||1944||March 44. DJ 8/6|
|Secrets Can't be Kept||Gollancz||1944||Sept 44. DJ 8/6|
|There's a Reason for Everything||Gollancz||1945||DJ 7/6|
|It Might Lead Anywhere||Gollancz||1946|
|Helen Passes By||Gollancz||1947|
|The House of Godwinsson||Gollancz||1948|
|So Many Doors||Gollancz||1949|
|Everybody Always Tells||Gollancz||1950|
|The Secret Search||Gollancz||1951|
|The Golden Dagger||Gollancz||1951|
|The Attending Truth||Gollancz||1952|
|Brought to Light||Gollancz||1954|
|Dark is the Clue||Gollancz||1955|
|Six Were Present||Gollancz||1956|
Robertson Halkett aka ER Punshon
|Title||Publisher||Date||Issue Points - Notes|
|Where Every Prospect Pleases||Benn||1933||Black cloth, orange lettering|
Classic Crime Fiction
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