Death Among the Sunbathers (E.R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Benn, 1934

My review

Rather a poor offering. Although it begins well as an entertaining detective story with plenty of suspects and an unusual setting, it shifts slightly more than halfway through into the dreadful realm of thrillerdom, while the nudist colony is a front for a clever gang of arsonists, whose leader hides his pistol in a box of crank’s food. Bobby Owen spends the whole book in a preposterous (and obvious) disguise, as insulting to him as it is to the reader.

From the evidence of this book and others of its ilk, one can only conclude that nudist camps do not agree with the detective story. Printer’s Error was Gladys Mitchell’s weakest effort of the 1930s, and the less said about Ellery Queen’s Egyptian Cross Mystery, the better.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 24th March 1934):

It is not true, as some people seem to think, that the worse a detective story is written the better it sells.  Quite the contrary.  No book intended for intelligent readers gains anything by bad writing.

It is, unhappily, true that a kind of wholesale and indiscriminate badness of plot, style, and sentiment alike is relished by that vast illiterate public which cannot and will not think and only asks to be doped into daydreams by its daily dose of talkie, thriller and tabloid news.  But that public will not in any case bother itself with a real detective problem demanding concentrated attention, whereas those thoughtful and hand-picked minds that enjoy an intellectual puzzle are merely affronted and repelled by being called on to pick out their problem from a mess of sloppy cliché and incoherent syntax.

The most intricate plot ever woven will never carry bad writing; but good writing will often carry a thin plot and really inspired writing will carry almost anything.  That is why, in reviewing crime stories for an intelligent paper, I lay what some people may consider an exaggerated emphasis on style.  Bad English has not even the excuse of expediency.  It is a criminal blunder, and its perpetrators should, and frequently do, commit financial suicide by hanging themselves in their own participles.

English Undefiled

The three writers who offer to entertain us this week have this in common, that they engage in no treason against the King’s English, and for this, though their sins were as scarlet, I would willingly whitewash them.  Actually, I feel that neither Mr. Punshon nor Mr. Carr has written quite up to his usual form.

With Mr. Punshon, this is due to the lay-out of his plot, which obliges him to give more space to his criminals and less to those delightful policemen by whom he chiefly wins our love and enthusiasm.  What there is of Superintendent Mitchell is excellent, and we long for more; and the establishment at Leadeane, where health-seekers chew carrots and sun-bathe clothed only in virtue and their birthday suits, is touched in with caustic by a relentless hand.  The plot itself is an able re-handling of an established theme, and is commendably free from long explanations and confessions.  If Death Among the Sun Bathers disappoints us a little, it is in being less characteristic and less lovable than the author’s previous work.


Times Literary Supplement (3rd May 1934):

Jo Frankland’s visit to Leadeane Grange had more behind it than the desire to write up the activities of its nudist inhabitants.  Unluckily for her, those who were responsible for what was going on behind the scenes took very good care to shut her mouth.  She died, not on the roof reserved for lady sun bathers, but at the foot of a railway embankment nearby in the blazing wreckage of her sports car.  But, unluckily for her enemies, Superintendent Wilson and his colleagues happened to be only a few hundred yards away from the scene of the disaster.  Wilson had caught a glimpse of her car as it sped to destruction, and, like a careful detective, he had noted in that fraction of a second the style of coiffure affected by the driver.  It was that neat little observation that did the trick.  Yet the cautious reader will certainly find some difficulty in believing the theory put forward on pages 106 and 138 for the events described on pages ten and eleven.  For a little arithmetic will show that the crash occurred within a few seconds and only about 300 yards away from the spot where Wilson and his men were standing.  The less critical reader will probably overlook such a discrepancy in the excitement of following Wilson and young Bobby Owen in the elaborate game of hide-and-seek that follows.