Diabolic Candelabra (E.R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1942

My review

There is more than a hint of the Brothers Grimm in this story of a mysterious hermit living in the woods, a wild girl who talks to animals, her wicked stepfather, two disappearances, two El Greco paintings, and a Cellini (the Diabolic Candelabra of the title). Like the Babes in the Wood or Hansel and Gretel, the plot takes the reader into the very midst of a forest of confusing branches and paths, with a surprise around every corner – yet the complexities are more rewarding than overwhelming. The murderer is very difficult to spot – the alert reader will require a good hour of solid thinking to arrive at the correct conclusion, and will be very pleased with himself for doing so. Like all good fairy-tales: spell-binding.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 30th May 1942):

There may be the figure of a familiar detective in the foreground of Diabolic Candelabra but what he achieves by thinking hardly amounts to much.  This time Inspector Bobby Owen and his wife Olive blunder by chance into a romance of the wild woods with hermit and hidden heirlooms.  It may be old-fashioned but it certainly is spell-binding.  Some scraps of airy persiflage and ardent whimsy annoy; otherwise Mr. Punshon puts us into a trance with his picture of the forest that surrounds an ancient quarry, not so disused that it cannot proffer a hint to the detective’s eye.  The candelabra, a masterpiece by Benuvento Cellini, has somehow got itself mixed up with home-made chocolates and a canvas or two by El Greco.  Only a fanatic will complain that there is little exercise of detective faculties.


Manchester Guardian (Wilfred Gibson, 5th June 1942):

Perhaps that sense of actuality is hardly required in a thriller, yet though Mr. E.R. Punshon, in Diabolic Candelabra, elaborates his fantastic conceptions with his accustomed adroitness I could not help wishing for a more credible yarn.  I must admit, however, that on the question of the identity of the murderer he did lead me rather nicely up the garden path.  It seemed so obvious to me from the first who had committed the crime that I could not but believe that I was mistaken and that Mr. Punshon had some further surprise up his sleeve—and he hadn’t!  In a tale of this sort, unlikely coincidences and the lack of credible characterisation are perhaps of little account, but in a straight story they are fatal to any sense of illusion, and in The Road Winds Back Mr. Peter Conway not only fails to create credible characters but he also twists the supple and accommodating arm of coincidence to the limit of endurance.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 13th June 1942):

It is pleasant to find Mr. Punshon back in form.  In Diabolic Candelabra an old hermit is missing from his hut in a Wychshire forest, while many years earlier the candelabra, attributed to Cellini, and a few El Grecos were missing from a neighbouring mansion.  Bobby Owen connects these disappearances, is brisker than usual over the routine checking-up, makes an elfin friend in the forest, and finally plunges through the brushwood to an exciting dénouement.