Dictator’s Way by E. R. Punshon

Originally published in 1938
Bobby Owen #10
Preceded by The Dusky Hour
Followed by Comes a Stranger

Also known as Death of a Tyrant.

When an old acquaintance of Bobby Owen’s from Oxford days turns up out of the blue, he needs help. Bobby little suspects that investigating the sinister enclave of ‘Dictator’s Way’ will quickly set in train a series of momentous events, involving Bobby in a fistfight with an ex-professional boxer, kidnap, peril at sea and international intrigue – not to mention encounters with the mysterious and attractive Olive Farrar in whom Bobby might just have met his match.

It had been a while since I last read something by E. R. Punshon in spite of owning ebook copies of a large quantity of the Bobby Owen mysteries. Perhaps it might have been even longer had I not found myself in need of reading a book written in 1938 and found that my first couple of selections didn’t really grab my attention. This one did however, thanks to the rather intriguing circumstances in which a murdered body is discovered.

Bobby Owen has been contacted by the Honorable Charles Waveny, a man he met playing rugby at University. He is initially quite looking forward to the meeting but soon realizes that he has been looked up in a professional capacity by a man who expects him to do something for him. The favor is that he wants Bobby to pay a visit with him to an unoccupied house near Epping Forest the next evening. The house is quite infamous in the area for hosting high stakes card games, films that had not passed the censors and visits from the owner’s lady friends.

Waveny explains that there is a man who has been bothering a young woman and he wants the attention stopped without damage to her reputation. Bobby is unsympathetic, suggesting that he will refer the matter to the local police, but before he does he decides to make some brief enquiries in the area where he learns a little more about the parties and takes a quick look at the house. When he ventures inside in search of a telephone he discovers bloody finger prints on the telephone receiver and the dead body of an unknown man.

The discovery of an unidentified body in a place that it has no business being is always an appealing hook for a story and I think the odd details and circumstances that precede it, not to mention an entertaining action sequence, only make the crime seem more peculiar and intriguing. I should perhaps say at this point that while this is a detective story, it is written more like an adventure than a puzzle mystery. There is plenty of action, including a fistfight and a dramatic sequence that takes place at sea, giving this a real page-turning quality.

One of the other aspects of the novel that lends it that adventure feel is its political backdrop. Punshon’s story incorporates characters who come from the fictional European state of Etruria which is ruled over by a dictator who is known as The Redeemer. It is not hard to see parallels to some of the real political figures of the era (many of whom are directly name-checked in the novel) and the book does contain some thoughtful discussion about the rise of fascism and why industry and the financial centers of the world often end up accepting those regimes. Similarly Punshon also discusses the fear of revolution and the resentments that build up towards the privileged classes.

In addition to the political commentary, Punshon also laces his novel with plenty of amusing social commentary. One of my favorite passages of the book introduces us to a restaurant and explains exactly why it, and others of its kind, are in vogue with the fashionable types in London. I hadn’t been expecting this sort of comedic material and I felt that it was well observed and, in a few cases, surprisingly applicable even today. While I wouldn’t suggest reading this book for that, it certainly helped enrich the experience for me.

Perhaps the biggest hook for me though was that this is the book that introduces us to a character who will be important in the series from this point forward – Olive. In his excellent introduction to the novel, Curtis Evans notes that this was one of several examples from this year of an established series detective finding themselves with a love interest. While I had somewhat mixed feelings towards my previous Bobby Owen reads (Diabolic Candelabra and It Might Lead Anywhere), Olive was a favorite element in each so it was nice to go back and see how she was initially introduced.

The situation in which he first encounters her, as a suspect in a murder case, is not unique to this novel but the character is not presented as one in distress or in need of rescue. She is tough, principled and acts pretty decisively at points in the story (traits I can see in those subsequent stories I have read, although she has a much smaller role in each). Instead it is Bobby who is the more affected by their meeting, finding himself drawn to her in spite of the possibility that she is seriously mixed up in the whole affair. Punshon presents this situation and their interactions well, avoiding overly sentimental prose and concentrating on the question of how those budding feelings might be influencing the way Bobby pursues this case. This novel reminded me how much I liked this character and if anyone reading this knows of any other Olive-heavy stories, please let me know in the comments below!

While Dictator’s Way may not be a good fit for those seeking a puzzle mystery, I did find it to be a pretty engaging read. The action scenes are described well and help keep things moving, building nicely to an exciting conclusion that tied things up pretty well. It certainly has been my best experience with Punshon to date and leaves me hopeful that I will find more to my taste in the future.

The Verdict: This is more adventure than mystery but it is a highly entertaining and often quite exciting read.

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