B.A. Pike on E.R. Punshon

About E. R. Punshon

Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers (ed. John M. Reilly, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1980)

E.R. Punshon was writing mystery fiction before, during and after the Golden Age, in a career that spanned over half a century.  His work in the field falls naturally into three distinct phases, a sporadic group of melodramas, a brief detective series with two contrasting policemen, and a much longer series with a single police protagonist.

The first phase was launched in 1907 with The Mystery of Lady Isobel, an efficient exercise in formula melodrama that poses a still inviting question: is Lady Isobel a destructive “she-devil” or a blameless victim?  This and its half-dozen successes met the demand of their time for lurid romances with a strong narrative drive.  Victor Gollancz was right to list them as “thrillers”, since their primary aim is excitement.  Despite their evident vitality, they are too much of their time to appeal to any modern reader.

Punshon’s later series are more accessible and continue to give pleasure to those who approach them with positive expectations.  His second phase began in 1929 with The Unexpected Legacy, the first of five books known from their leading characters as the “Carter and Bell” novels.  These are intricate and eventful narratives combining formal detection with action and atmosphere.  They feature an incongruous pair of Scotland Yard detectives, whose relationship recalls that of the Hare and the Tortoise in Aesop’s fable.  Inspector Carter is essentially a hollow man, thrusting and showy, but seeing no more than the surface of things and easily led to false conclusions.  His real gift is for self-promotion and he depends on his sergeant to solve their cases, though taking the credit himself.  Sergeant Bell is astute but unassertive, a melancholy man who accepts the world as it is and resigns himself to his superior’s need to bolster himself at the expense of a subordinate.  He does eventually claim his due, however, in the last of the series, where Carter also encounters a drastic reversal of fortune.

In 1933, with Information Received, Punshon introduced a young policeman, Bobby Owen, who remained his series detective to the end of his life.  There are thirty-five novels in the sequence and they follow Bobby’s career from naïve youth to experienced middle age.  In his first case he gains the favour of Superintendent Mitchell, the shrewd and sparky veteran who oversees his early career.  When war comes, he is given charge of a rural C.I.D. and later, back at the Yard, he becomes a commander.  An earl’s nephew and Oxford graduate, he is very much in the decent, clean-limbed tradition, playing a straight bat and keeping his end up.  Though brave, ambitious and resourceful, he is wholly without pretension and has no desire to be a hero.  He shows endearing innocence as a young man but gains in authority and wisdom as the years pass.  However bizarre the circumstances that involve him, he remains methodical, persistent and comfortingly sane.

The best of Punshon’s work is the Owen series, which, though uneven, has much to commend it.  Given a sympathetic reading, he can still surprise, intrigue, and amuse.  To some degree the books are conventional detective stories in the classic mould, with physical clues and familiar themes.  The people are closely observed and continually assessed for their suspicious potential.  Bobby takes stock from time to time, tabulating the evidence or talking things over with his accommodating wife, Olive.  Implicit in all that occurs, however dreadful, is the reassurance that order will eventually be restored.

Beneath the traditional patterns of detective fiction, however, lies something altogether more disturbing.  The series is shot through with an eerie intensity, a manic quality that seizes the author’s imagination.  He stretches the formal framework of detective fiction to accommodate driven personalities with “tumultuous, unrestrained passions”.  There are no half-measures in Punshon’s novels: people don’t experience dislike, they seethe with venomous hatred.  He draws on the basic emotions, manipulating them to create havoc.  Many of his characters are eccentric in one way or another, whether in the mind or in body.  They are set apart by a deformity, an obsession, a peculiar power: a turbulent religious fanatic, a one-eyed colonel with “excessive pride of birth”, a young idealist with a club foot, a pianist whose playing unsettles those who hear it.

The novels also have their lighter side, apparent in the attractive presentation of Bobby’s marriage and in caustic comments on aspects of contemporary life; and a mischievous humour surfaces on occasion, as when the text of a coded message is attributed to Gertrude Stein.  But it is Punshon’s intensity that distinguishes him and marks him as an original.