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.

It Might Lead Anywhere by E R Punshon

It Might Lead Anywhere
E. R. Punshon
Originally Published 1946
Bobby Owen #22
Preceded by There’s A Reason for Everything
Followed by Helen Passes By

As I noted in my review of another E R Punshon novel, Diabolic Candelabra, I have been guilty of taking advantage of introductory pricing and sales from Dean Street Press, amassing a large digital library I have barely started to read. While it has taken me nearly half a year to get around to giving another book in the series a try, I came to It Might Lead Anywhere feeling quite intrigued by its premise.

Policeman Bobby Owen hears word of a religious riot taking place in a nearby village and, though it is not in his jurisdiction, he heads over to try to break it up. He discovers that among the villagers is Duke Dell, a former boxer who now passionately preaches what he calls The Vision. His views frustrate many within the community but one of the villagers, Alfred Brown, seems to have been drawn to him. In the course of the riot that Bobby witnesses Dell thrown Brown into the river with such force that his head begins to bleed.

The next day Brown is discovered dead in his cottage by a police officer who happens to be passing the home and notices the wireless playing and the door ajar. Entering the home he sees that Brown has been brutally beaten to death with a poker. Though he has no authority in the area, Bobby decides he will consult the area’s Chief Constable and share the information he has. In the course of that conversation he manages to manipulate the Chief into asking Bobby to assist in their investigations.

The sequence in which Bobby subtly convinces Chief Constable Spencer to invite him onto the case is one of my favorites in the whole novel, in part because it brilliantly captures the fragile egos and concern for status that exists in many forms of local government. The tentative negotiations that take place are superbly observed and I liked the working relationship that is established between the two men in the first part of the book.

One of my biggest complaints about Diabolic Candelabra was that I felt I hardly knew Bobby Owen by the end of the novel. While It Might Lead Anywhere still places its focus on the mystery and adventure, I think the novel takes more time to develop the character and showcase his personality. Here we see his method at work, particularly in the way he interacts with the various suspects. Though he is not a large personality here, I think his methodical approach works well and his actions seem logical and clear even if he seems to be making little progress with his investigation for much of the novel.

I continue to enjoy his interactions with his wife, Olive, though she only features in a few short sections of the novel. Their interactions do feel like those of a couple who know each other well and I appreciate that Olive does have some input into the investigation, although there is no decisive contribution here. I did find Bobby’s apparent lack of awareness of why his wife was not thrilled to hear that an attractive young woman had flirted with him to be quite entertaining and I do hope that the next Punshon I read features her more prominently.

I have been quite sparing with my description of the plot because this is not a story with a lot of incident or development and so I do not want to reveal too many of this book’s secrets. In spite of the simplicity of this case, I did enjoy the way the story unfolded and I think the case is certainly intriguing, if not particularly dynamic. I would agree with TomCat’s assessment in his excellent review that the plotting is ‘slender’ and just focused on a single problem.

I would add that the cast of suspects is relatively thin and one character can be quickly identified as the likely party. While questions of motive and means remain, this does mean that those approaching this in the hope of a good puzzle may feel a little disappointed in what they find.

In spite of the quite simple plot, I still found that there was plenty to interest me here. While this was published a year after World War Two ended, it is set during the final months of the conflict and it reads like a wartime novel. Having followed PuzzleDoctor’s Do Mention The War series of blog posts about novels written during the conflict I found myself paying more attention than I would normally do to details relating to blackout regulations (lifted in the later days of the war), petrol rationing, fears of invasion as well as a very spam-heavy dinner menu (spam jardiniere, omlette au spam and spam pie all feature – yum!).

Another aspect of the book that pleased me was the characterization which I felt was pretty strong. While one character did stand out to me as the likely murderer, the other suspects were each interesting in their own way and I enjoyed discovering their stories and seeing how they interacted with each other.

While It Might Lead Anywhere is not a classic mystery novel, I did find it to be an enjoyable read and a more satisfying and coherent experience than Diabolic Candelabra. My hope is that when I next return to Punshon I will find a slightly more complex and satisfying mystery along with the atmosphere and the characterization.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a small village (Where)

Diabolic Candelabra by E R Punshon

Diabolic Candelabra
E. R. Punshon
Originally Published 1942
Bobby Owen #17
Preceded by The Dark Garden
Followed by The Conqueror Inn

For all my complaining about my ever-growing pile of books to read, I rarely have more than a few physical books on my nightstand at a time these days. My problems, as they are, lie more in the digital realm.

Really this is Dean Street Press’ fault. Not only are their eBooks typically quite reasonably priced, they also routinely offer a free eBook or three to tempt readers to try a new author. I am not sure how I came to acquire a handful of Punshon novels but they have been sat on my Kindle for a few months and, in a lull between my normal authors, I thought I should just pick one to get things started.

After finishing Diabolic Candelabra and reading a few of the reviews from fellow bloggers I am wondering if I may have picked the wrong Punshon to start with as this seems anything but typical of the author’s work. In spite of not adhering to the traditional puzzle mystery structure, I did find there quite a few things to enjoy here though, like PuzzleDoctor, I found myself a little frustrated at times.

The novel begins with the detective, Bobby Owen, being asked by his wife to use his professional talents to help track down the creator of some rather unusual chocolates. A friend of hers is interested in acquiring the recipe or, failing that, a big batch to sell at her church for a fundraiser.

Bobby agrees to take a trip with his wife to the forest of Wychwood to look for the reclusive chocolatier. They discover her living in a cottage in the depths of the forest with her mother who is an invalid, her roguish stepfather and a younger sister who is left to run free in the forest. They also learn that the chocolatier uses an ingredient prepared by a hermit who lives even deeper in the forest.

When they go in search of the hermit they discover that his hut is empty and there are traces of blood in the earth and signs that it has been searched. Bobby is suspicious that there has been some violence carried out in the hut but the lack of a body raises further questions. Could the hermit’s disappearance be linked in some way with the theft of two El Greco paintings and silver candelabra some decades earlier or is it to do with his herbal remedies and extracts?

This is a sprawling, seemingly unfocused story and that description only covers some of the elements at play in this mystery. While I trusted that these seemingly disparate plot points would be brought together towards the end of the novel, it did strike me that the detective really isn’t actually investigating any solid crime for much of the book and is snooping around on the basis on a hunch that some crime may eventually turn up.

The opening third of the book therefore feels odd to me. In some ways that strangeness is a positive – I liked the way the forest becomes an unsettling and mysterious location for Bobby and I appreciated the subtle parallels to elements of the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. On the other, I felt restless as I waited and waited for a body or painting to finally show up.

Normally that would not be an issue for me and so I can only think that I may have read this on the wrong day or in the wrong mood. After all, one of my favorite mystery films is Blow-Up which ends with us still pondering the question whether anything actually happened at the start of the movie or not. Here at least we are served something tangible, even if it comes late in the book.

The other reason I suspect that my griping has more to do with me than the book is that Punshon manages to stitch these seemingly very disparate elements together very well towards the end of the novel and so it becomes clear that the seeming lack of structure early on is an intentional deception on the part of the author. Some of the connections are likely to be obvious to the reader such as a matter of identity while some of the others took a little longer to come into focus. Normally this is exactly the kind of detailed, interwoven plotting that impresses me.

Similarly I will say that I loved Punshon’s characters. This book is stuffed with some really strange, curious people who live on the frontier between civilization and wilderness. As so many others have commented, the little feral girl Loo is a particular delight and I thought the conversations she has with Bobby were the highlights of the novel for me. Though she is running wild, she is still smart and logical – just in an untrained way (Doctor Who fans – think what Leela would have been like as a child) and I appreciated that she is given meaningful things to do rather than just be a comedic or atmospheric element of the story.

On the other hand, I ended the book with very little sense of who Bobby was other than he gets absorbed in the mysteries he is working to solve and can rely on the support of his caring wife. Once again I feel that this is possibly simply a reflection that this book may not be a typical Bobby Owen mystery – other reviewers have noted that this stands out as a change of style and pace – so I may appreciate it more were I to come to it with a better knowledge of the character.

One thing I can be sure of however is that the final solution is drab and far less clever than anything that has come before it. Let’s leave to one side the rather splendid resolution to where a character has disappeared to, the identity of the main villain is all too obvious and so the moment of revelation felt anticlimactic. Nor could I marvel at the detective’s logic or cleverness in proving it as this is one of those stories where the villain really reveals themselves. Such endings only really satisfy me when they are not who I expected which is sadly far from the case here.

Where does that leave me? Honestly, I’m not sure. There’s certainly material and ideas I liked here very much and I will agree with those readers who found the setting effective and inspiring. I enjoyed reading the book and felt parts of it worked tremendously well. My problem was that it felt more of an adventure than a mystery to me and so I was left feeling frustrated for much of the novel and maybe if I read this on another day it may have bothered me less.

Though I didn’t love Diabolic Candelabra the way I hoped, I did find things to admire here and I do plan on reading some others from this series. I may even eventually revisit it to see if I feel differently. Finally I’d encourage anyone curious about this book to read the two very different linked reviews above, particularly TomCat’s, for some alternative perspectives on this.