The Attending Truth (E.R. Punshon)

  • By E.R. Punshon
  • First published: UK: Gollancz, 1952
  • Availability: Dean Street Press, 2016

Westshire hasn’t had a murder for 40 years, until an inoffensive commercial traveller is bashed on the head in a copse. Murders may not happen very often, the locals feel, but they’re dynamite when they do. This one could scupper the Tories’ plans for reelection; the great lady of the district (head of a shirt company) found the body, and rumour says she did it. Commander Bobby Owen is sent from Scotland Yard. For colour, there are obsessed vicars, bullying Tory colonels, young lovers, quiet enigmatic beauties, and a nudist sculptress.

Perhaps it was a mistake to read another English detective story after a late Freeman Wills Crofts. The Attending Truth – Bobby Owen’s 30th case – is slow and contemplative, and utterly lacking dramatic tension or anything resembling excitement.

The crime here is rather dull. Murders in Punshon often are; the crimes exist to set up a tangle of intense, passionate emotions, cryptic conversations, and secrets that in retrospect mean little. A case without material clues, Bobby calls this one. Like Maigret, Bobby does not so much detect as drift, listening to gossip and soaking up the atmosphere. The victim is an utter cipher; we know nothing about him until the denouement. Nobody has any motive, and there aren’t any character movements or alibis. Basic points (where the victim came from, his office) are seemingly neglected. And the solution is unsatisfactory; there is only one clue, which almost no reader will spot.

Punshon might be dull, but he was liberal and compassionate. Colonel Yeo-Young, who “just about is the local Tory party”, enjoys setting his dogs on people and harrassing tramps; his notion of discipline reduced his battalion to a state of incipient mutiny. Bobby, on the other hand, treats the tramp as a human being, worthy of dignity; he calls him “Mister”, and finds him a job.

Punshon was ambivalent about organised religion. Is the vicar a busybody, prejudiced and narrow, responsible for a woman’s suicide, or is he a strange compelling force and authority? Bobby wonders if his concern with village morality (haunting the copse and shining torches on lovers) is a sexual obsession; a psychiatrist, he muses, might very soon discover very ugly things in Mr. Duggan’s unconscious. (Shades of Saltmarsh.) He is diligent and uncompromising, but also fanatical; a force narrow and pent-up.


Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 17th August 1952): Bobby Owen, called in by the Chief Constable of Westshire to investigate the bashing of a commercial traveller, unravels a plot like a Victorian three-decker in which everybody is either somebody else’s bastard or a black marketeer.

E.R. Punshon was rather nettled. (The Manchester Guardian, 7 September 1952)

Sir, – In his notice of my new novel, The Attending Truth, your reviewer states that every character in it is “either somebody else’s bastard or a black marketeer.”

The facts are that out of eighteen or twenty characters, one is a black marketeer; one, an elderly woman, an entirely minor character, is of illegitimate birth; one is disturbed by the discovery that his mother’s marriage may be of doubtful legality. In neither of these last two cases is it of any importance in the development of the tale. It is brought in each time only to explain or elucidate traits of character.

Yours, etc.,

S.W. 16 E. R. PUNSHON.

Our reviewer writes: Mr. Punshon has taken me too literally.

  

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