Strange Ending (E.R. Punshon)

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Somebody ought to write a paper about the connection between traditional British cooking and detective fiction. Does solid, bland, unadventurous food give one an appetite for (or make more palatable) literary stodge? One of the bigger mysteries raised by Bobby Owen’s 31st case, in which Punshon promises a criminal “fine dining” experience … and serves brown Windsor soup instead.

Hugh Newton was killed while he was preparing a meal; he was found dead in his apartment, wearing a chef’s cap and apron, and feathers stuffed down his throat. Choking to death was probably better than having to eat post-war English food: its joys, according to the police heroes, are roast meat and two veg, steak and kidney pudding, or a cut from the joint, followed by plum duff.

What is garlic? “Something in the south of France, against the general effects of which the use of a gas-mask was desirable,” thinks Bobby Owen, while DC Ford hardly knows what it is, “except vaguely as something that foreigners had for dinner – and just like them”. An experienced chef’s idea of garlic is to “rub a clove of it round a dish you are going to use”. A single clove! Thai garlic chicken (kai yang) calls for six cloves; the Arab ujjah uses eight – an excellent cure for colds and other ailments. The idea of cooking with butter leaves Ford incredulous. “My old woman is going to pass out when I tell her.”

(And, yes, ‘Anglo’ Australian food was similarly dreadful until continental Europeans arrived after the war, followed by Asian and African migrants. These days, where I live, we have Filipino, Ethiopian, Burmese, Afghani, Uighur, and Peruvian restaurants – not to mention the usual Asian and Mediterranean staples. There’s Korean and Vietnamese on almost every corner, let alone Indian, Japanese, Thai, and Chinese. And authentic, regional Chinese at that. If you haven’t eaten mao xue wang, you don’t know what you’re missing.)

Strange Ending is one of the few Punshons that opens with the murder already committed, but the rest of the criminal banquet doesn’t live up to the entrée. Late Punshon is not my idea of criminal haute cuisine, and this is one of his standard recipes for an imbroglio: lumpy, fatty, flavourless, and almost inedible. One chews and chews, and finds only gristle. Shadowy figures (characterization undercooked) bob around in the thick, congealing gravy of Punshon’s prose, while Bobby Owen laboriously trudges through the stews. (Still, there’s one good scene: the young woman in the car.) This mystery has to do with smuggling, and the murderer confesses a few chapters before the end; the story carries on regardless, to its underwhelming close. Maurice Richardson thought it “Mr. Punshon’s best for twenty or thirty books”; it gave me indigestion.

Earlier Punshons are much more to my taste; try Death Comes to Cambers or Diabolic Candelabra.

Contemporary reviews

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (17 July 1953): Commander Bobby Owen, investigating a sailor’s murder, finds smuggling and cordon bleu cookery oddly intermingled. Cosy, circumstantial, but with some unwarranted mystification.

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 19th July 1953): Raffish, equivocal travel-agent-cum-professional-gourmet found with his mouth stuffed full of feathers.  (A new technique, yes, but you’ve still got to catch them first.)  Suspects include Quilp-like anarchist barrister and volcanically sultry secretary.  Nice tragic finish.  Mr. Punshon’s best for twenty or thirty books.

Daily News (Frederick Laws, 23 July 1953): I had almost given up that worthy sleuth Bobby Owen. This is a delightful and welcome return to form.

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