Death Comes to Cambers (E.R. Punshon)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

My first encounter with Sergeant Bobby Owen, here a guest of Lady Cambers, whom he finds strangled on the village field. Although the detection is somewhat sketchy in parts, this is a more orthodox story, and hence more pleasing, than the Carter and Bell series. We are given a good domestic tangle, with a great number of vivid characters to suspect, including a splendidly mad creationist and an arrogant archaeologist. The plot is elaborate, but the pieces fit together as neatly as vintage Carr or Christie, and the closely reasoned solution is very logical and satisfying, with a pleasingly original alibi. Other good features include an ingenious cipher, an amusingly obtuse Chief Constable (another unpleasant authority figure in Punshon’s work), and writing that is sharp and to the point, without the necessity of deciphering quasi-Victorian verbose verbiage. In short, superb.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 1st December 1935): The honour of solving the mystery of Lady Cambers’s death falls to our young old friend Sergeant Bobby Owen, who is in on the case almost accidentally.  Death Comes to Cambers is an excellently constructed tale; the coincidental and intentional crossing of trails is fair and probable; the elucidation is a model of intelligent detection.  But the book is overloaded with uninspired observation of the commonplace; the dialogue remains true to life by being dull.  The number of characters introduced might live at the hand of a lightning black-and-white artist; but Mr. Punshon greyly stipples in significant and insignificant details alike with an effect of ponderous leisure.  The first law and instinct of humour is selection; when Mr. Punshon forces himself to select and concentrate he will join the majors.

Times Literary Supplement (28th December 1935): Mr. Punshon writes pleasantly and constructs a mystery as well as anyone.  But perhaps in this book he has tried to do too many things at once.  We ought to be interested in the puzzle presented by the strangulation of Lady Cambers.  We meet our old, or rather young, friend Bobby Owen, who has now risen to the rank of sergeant in the C.I.D.  But the author’s own interest is in the psychology of Eddy Dene, who assisted his parents in keeping the village shop and was an archæologist in his spare time, and of Amy Emmers, Lady Cambers’s maid, vaguely engaged to Eddy Dene.  And the blend of detection, psychology and archæology is not wholly successful.  We read on, because Mr. Punshon manages to keep us guessing, but he does not treat us quite fairly in the end.  Regretfully, for the story has merits, we are not convinced.