By E.R. Punshon
First published: UK: Gollancz, 1948
One of Punshon’s most action-packed books. A spiv is shot dead with a plan of Bobby Owen’s flat on him; before long, Bobby is in knife fights with East End gansters, and rescuing society ladies from torture by cigarette. Armed bandits, jewel robberies, youth clubs, the oldest family in England, and the rightful heir to the throne usurped by William the Conqueror are somehow involved.
Like several of Punshon’s detective stories, it’s not really a puzzle plot; there are, as Bobby observes, really no material clues, or alibis – or indeed much of a whodunit pull. Punshon’s plots often involve a disappearance rather than a corpse; detection consists of finding connections between characters, and unearthing their secrets.
The murderer is easy to spot; worse, Punshon lifted the solution from one of John Dickson Carr’s earliest books. Nf va Gur Pbecfr va gur Jnkjbexf, gur zheqrere vf na nevfgbpeng pbybary jub zheqref uvf reevat bssfcevat sbe ernfbaf bs vafnar snzvyl cevqr (gur Ebzna pbaprcg bs cngevn cbgrfgnf vf vaibxrq), naq jub srryf ubabhe-obhaq gb yrnir pyhrf sbe gur qrgrpgvir.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 26th September 1948):
In The House of Godwinsson, Bobby Owen tackles a thrillerish murder mystery involving a family “who had persistently refused the peerages offered them throughout the centuries because they never recognised the right of William the Conqueror or any of his descendants to the throne”. There are fights lasting many pages of rather pensive prose in which underworld, aristocracy, and constabulary are inextricably mixed.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 16th October 1948):
The dividing line between thrillers and detection is being steadily obscured by the shuffling of authors who try to have a foot in both camps. This must be very gratifying to those booksellers, library assistants and publishers who have fought tooth and nail to prevent the public exercising any discrimination in the matter. Their assumption has always been that anyone who, from his low state of health or other infirmity, feels the need of a detective story might just as well read a thriller—so why bother to differentiate. For medicinal purposes a thriller is the equivalent of a detective story: therefore it is a detective story. And here comes Mr. Gollancz (always a bold pioneer) to say so in so many words. On the spine of the dust jacket The House of Godwinsson is described as a thriller, and on the face of the dust jacket as a detective story. It is high time to protest.
One must admit that many readers gallop through their detective stories with as little mental application as they devote to a thriller. In fact, they frequently begin with a glance at the last page in order to spare themselves any effort of thought and to swindle the poor author. But that very act illustrates the essential difference between the two. No one bothers to anticipate the end of a thriller by turning to the last chapter because no one’s mental processes are in danger of stimulation. A thriller relies for its effect on evoking an emotional state of suspense and anticipation: a detective story provides a problem on which the reader can, if he likes, exercise his mind. Of course, detection can borrow a few thrills, and be none the worse for that. While a thriller, as part of the mechanism of suspense, commonly shrouds the identity of the head villain in mystery, and keeps the reader guessing to the last: but guesswork is not detection. In spite of authors’ attempts to produce hybrids, a reviewer can still tell the two species apart. So I shall now try to emulate the unruffled demeanour of a Japanese sexing day-old chickens, and proceed to do so. To begin with, Mr. Punshon must be exonerated. The House of Godwinsson is as plain-sailing detection as any of the previous twenty-four Bobby Owens. The only rudiment of a thrill is when Bobby comes across a den of vice lined with erotic pictures. But, as not one single corroborative detail is supplied, our eager anticipation retires crestfallen. This is not one of Mr. Punshon’s over-complicated plots, I’m glad to say. A man is found murdered in the East End of London. All you have to do is to identify him. The simple problem offers a golden opportunity to solve a Punshon for once off your own bat.