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.