It Might Lead Anywhere (E.R. Punshon)


H.C. Bailey‘s detective stories, an admiring E.R. Punshon wrote in 1937, “[presented] in dramatic form those common human problems of love and hate, of fear and greed, in solving which mankind must find or lose its soul”. Punshon himself used the detective story as a vehicle to illuminate the philosophical and social concerns of his time (Crossword Mystery, written within months of the Nazi rise to power, depicts the persecution of the Jews; Dictator’s Way is concerned with the rise of totalitarianism in Europe). In this slow-moving but thought-provoking middle-period work, Punshon is concerned with religion as a power and a force.

Bobby left the vicarage in a mood even more troubled, doubtful and uneasy. For now into the already tangled problem facing him had thrust themselves motives and impulses as profound and complicated and hard to understand as any known to humanity. For who can measure or guess the extent to which fanatical belief can drive the spirit of man? … Was it not Pascal who said that men never did evil so willingly and completely as when urged by religious conviction?

Ch. XVII

A charismatic preacher is stirring up trouble in Wychshire; this Chestertonian giant ex-boxer sees Visions, lives on cold potatoes, and flings policemen upside down into trees. (“No more than the complacent working of Dell’s sub-consciousness, obeying the directives received from his own uncontrolled instincts,” Bobby diagnoses.) The local vicar, his theological rival, is pelted with jellies and cakes. (“Squashy, creamy ones,” Punshon specifies.) A commonplace man with a dark secret follows the preacher – and is battered to death with a poker. Was it to save his soul? And what of the baby-faced girl with a killer look – and who may be Bobby Owen’s most formidable adversary yet? Demonic possession?

Although The Saturday Review declared It Might Lead Anywhere “best British brand”, Punshon’s latest mystery was coolly received on both sides of the Atlantic; John O’London’s Weekly, The New Statesman, and the San Francisco Chronicle called it “uninteresting”, “exhausting”, and “ponderous”. But as Bobby Owen wanders like a knight lost in a magic maze, the old enchanter Punshon weaves his spell over the reader.

The murder may be rather ordinary – “uninteresting” is too harsh – but it is the centre of a wheel of fire, showering sparks of suspicion in seven directions. Physical clues, odd motives, and sinister looks all suggest guilt. Punshon’s characterisation is not intimate; the suspects are seen through Bobby’s eyes, but he finds seething emotions and strange passions in respectable bosoms. Cryptic conversations (e.g. with Dell in Ch. XIX) are charged with a quiet but ominous power. When Punshon wants to write a set-piece, he does so beautifully; witness the soup scene in Ch. XXV, a strained luncheon with a poisoner, or Bobby’s desperate ride through the woods to prevent another murder in Ch. XXVII. The climax is one of Punshon’s “super-animated circuses” (as Torquemada called them): accusations and counter-accusations fly back and forth across the ring like Indian clubs, dazzling the spectator, thrown by innocent people and criminals desperate to incriminate others. Bobby brings out the handcuffs, then guilt rebounds onto the most obvious person – someone we suspected from the start (with two or three others, let it be said), then cleared a few pages before. Nicely played, Mr. P.

In Ch. XVIII, Punshon beats Monty Python to one of their most famous jokes: “Here there was a choice of spam jardinière, egg and fish cake, omelette au spam, fish cake hors d’oeuvre, spam pie, fish cake varié, and finally, nobly alone – Spam.” Was one of the Pythons a detective enthusiast? The ‘Railway timetables’ sketch is pure Freeman Wills Crofts. (The next page, by the way, has a groanworthy pun about coffee and logic.)

Other reviews: Beneath the Stains of Time; Mysteries Ahoy;


CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

John O’London’s Weekly (Evelyn Banks, 18th October 1946): Bobby Owen does his best with an uninteresting murder in Wychshire.  Mr. Punshon can do much better than this.

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 7th December 1946): And last, two steady old-timers It Might Lead Anywhere, by E.R. Punshon, features Bobby Owen unravelling yet another deeply rural Midwych murder, distinguished by a beautifully characterised religious maniac.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 21st December 1946): It is impossible to enter into the complications of It Might Lead Anywhere.  The title tells its own story; and it takes seven solid pages of type at the end for Bobby Owen to explain to his wife where it did lead.  Mr. Punshon makes a speciality of these detective birds nests.  It would be unfair to call them boring; but they are the most exhausting crimes I ever met.  And when you breast the tape alongside Bobby Owen you may drop dead beat.

The Saturday Review (8 February 1947): Baffling mixture of religion, hoarded gold, and murder in placid English town keep Acting Chief Constable Bobby Owen scampering ’round countryside.  Some sinister characters —male and female; adroit detecting with unexpected climax; odd bits of humour, and entertainingly insular outlook on life.  Best British brand.

San Francisco Chronicle (Lenore Glen Offord, 9 February 1947): Mousy man, follower of religious fanatic, is bludgeoned to death. Acting Chief Constable Bobby Owen investigates this and other dramatic events in village of Chipping Up. Good characterization, gentle humour, logical working out somehow can’t save this from seeming ponderous.

5 thoughts on “It Might Lead Anywhere (E.R. Punshon)

  1. Good to see a “new” Punshon review in your mix! I’m currently rereading Death of a Beauty Queen as part of a Goodreads event. I notice in Queen there is also a refreshingly bold push against religious bluster and hypocrisy. One of the suspects, Paul Irwin, is a politician with an evangelist’s zeal for rooting out sin in a showy, sanctimonious way. Years ago I read all of the Bobby Owen stories chronologically up to Comes a Stranger — now available to read courtesy of Dean Street Press — and hope to pick up the series again soon. Best wishes — J.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s a group called Reading the Detectives on Goodreads, and I try to join in when I can. They are big on reading a series sequentially (personally, I don’t mind skipping around) and are finishing up the Nicholas Blake Strangeways books and are five titles into the Bobby Owen series. They also went through the P.D. James books recently, and writers like Christie and Marsh seem to be perennials.

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      2. And yes, how can a Kindle e-text compare to a nostalgic Penguin paperback or a svelte Gollancz hardcover? But I do appreciate I don’t need to spend upwards of a thousand dollars to actually read titles like Comes a Stranger or Four Strange Women.

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