Death of a Beauty Queen (E.R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1935

My review

Punshon - Death of a Beauty Queen.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

A pleasant little Punshon more notable for its return to the complicated jigsaw puzzle of morbid psychology that shows the author at his best after the excessive melodrama of earlier works, than for its intrinsic value.

Bobby Owen and Supt. Mitchell are competent as they investigate the stabbing of a beauty queen at a suburban cinema; the story moves quite quickly; and there are moments of real (Doylean) horror in the treatment of the Irwins (c.f. Ch. XVIII). The horror is so skilfully built up that the reader cannot help but be disappointed by the solution, for SPOILER the numerous references to the Irwins’ changed appearance and behaviour seem to be building up to a revelation of fili- / patricide. The solution offered is regrettably tame and doesn’t quite ring true from the point of human behaviour, for we do not know enough of either the victim or the murderer to account for the motive. We are allowed to be ‘on’ to the murderer from halfway through (or earlier if the reader is familiar with Bailey’s President of San Jacinto), which adds to the feeling of disappointment, for Punshon lacks Sayers’s gifts.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 26th May 1935):

Whenever we read a detective story by Mr. Punshon, our critical faculty is nearly knocked flat by a quotation on the jacket in which Dorothy L. Sayers compares the “distinction” we salute “every time” in this writer with that which we recognise in Sherlock Holmes, Trent’s Last Case, The Mystery of the Villa Rose, and the Father Brown stories.  Let us burn the jacket, and see what we make of Death of a Beauty Queen ourselves.  The suspects are set up with the cynically obvious gesture of the lady at the Five-Shies-a-Penny.  The supposedly hidden clues stick out at least an inch or so.  The herrings are well trained, but not convincing.  Mr. Punshon can write English; but he should not do even this good deed to excess.  He says a thing well, and then goes on saying it again and again, not so well.  He describes, for instance, Paul Irwin’s eyes excellently once; he goes back a dozen lines later and describes them not so excellently again.  It is because this author might lead that he is worth reviling; this pleasant Punshon might be distilled to a few exciting gallons, and the heavy and commonplace satire be steamed away.


The Times (28th May 1935):

[Like Mr. Lowis in The Green Tunnel] Mr. Punshon is also inclined to overdraw some of his scenes.  But in Death of a Beauty Queen the fault is less apparent than in some of the earlier tales of Superintendent Mitchell and his assistant Bobby Owen.  What back-stage in a suburban cinema during a beauty contest is really like we cannot say; but Mr. Punshon has given us a pretty good idea.  And if the attentive reader spots the murderer of the winning competition sooner than the author intends him to, he will want to finish the book none the less.  Mr. Punshon clearly plumped for “character”; and his characters are very much alive.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 1st June 1935):

Mr. Punshon, who flaunts the distinction conferred on him by Miss Dorothy L. Sayers on the dust cover of every volume he publishes, will hardly gain further laurels with Death of a Beauty Queen.  Bobby Owen gets stupider with every case he appears to solve, and it is not encouraging to a reader, however truthful it may be, to be told that the detective is “really rather dense” but shows at times “an odd capacity for blundering on the truth”.  But, to do Bobby justice, the solution of the murder of a suburban beauty queen in her impresario’s office by any process of reasoning or deduction would have been odder still.


Times Literary Supplement (6th June 1935):

Mr. Punshon’s new murder story is the fifth in which Superintendent Mitchell and his assistant Bobby Owen have appeared.  In this case they are summoned to a suburban cinema during a Beauty Parade to investigate the death of an impossibly lovely young nit-wit, who might have died in decent obscurity in the suburbs of Los Angeles if she had not been found with a knife in her throat in the manager’s office.  The suspects are numerous, their motives not all very convincing.  One of them is a girl whom the victim tricked out of victory.  Then there is an oddly assorted collection of claimants for the deceased’s favours—the cinema manager, far too much the classic cad to deceive a sensible reader, who is not likely to be taken in either by the mysterious stranger, or by the stage-struck son of a Puritan father whose hat was found at the scene of the crime.  Mr. Punshon’s failure to make his characters convincing is enhanced by his habit of putting sententious remarks into their mouths.