Dictator’s Way (E.R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1938; US, Hillman-Curl, 1938, as Death of a Tyrant


My review

Like Crossword Mystery, this is an attack on fascism and totalitarianism, based (according to the prologue) on a topical event—which disproves the commonly held theory that English detective writers weren’t interested in politics or social commentary.  (They tend not to focus on them in the way Rendell’s social tracts do, but they often included ironic asides about the changing face of London or the countryside, the government, the class system, big business, modern morality, law or the War.)

The story’s fast-paced (I read it in a day) with lots of excitement (car chases, Bobby gets kidnapped, excellent scenes at sea, and love scenes).  It’s more of an adventure story with crime than a detective story, since there’s very little mystery: SPOILER the first (expected) murderer confesses to Bobby two-thirds through, and is later murdered, very near the end; the second murderer is immediately obvious (ink on his finger, leaky pen)—the interest lies not in his guilt, but in the evil régime that makes him a murderer to save his family from the concentration camp.

This is also the book in which Bobby meets his future wife Olive—he suspects her of the murder, and she threatens to shoot him at gun-point.  How to get off on the wrong foot!  Bobby’s dilemma is whether to protect the girl, or to tell the police.  Quite different from Bentley, Blake, Marsh or Sayers, in which the heroine is wrongfully accused and triumphantly cleared by the hero.

  • Published by Gollancz—left-wing.
  • Liberal detective writers: H.C. Bailey, Nicholas Blake, G.D.H. and M. Cole, Gladys Mitchell, E.R. Punshon; also Raymond Postgate, C. St. John Sprigg, and Ellen Mary Wilkinson.  Possibly also Major Street (Masaryk), and Agatha Christie (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe).

Blurb (US)

Here is a murder mystery which is front page news – a complete exposé of an international incident which threw the best brains of Scotland Yard into pell-mell excitement, frenzied search and frantic action.

Who murdered Macklin?  Detective Sergeant Bobby Owen knew only this: All the suspects had some connection with Etruria – that seething country which was ruled by an iron fist.

Intense Olive Farrar, nonchalant Peter Albert, evasive Judson, loquacious Thomas Troya, pompous Charles Waveny – all were inextricably bound together in a net of circumstantial evidence which told much – and yet, very little.  All was a vicious circle.  Too many suspects, too many motives, too many clues…

However, the inimitable E. R. Punshon’s methods are so scrupulously honest, that when at last, the culprit is unmasked, you will kick yourself around the block for not having discovered his identity.


Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 27th February 1938):

Considering the standard of puzzle-making which its author has set for himself in many of his previous books, Dictator’s Way, though an often wise and interesting story, is what John Silver would have called a rum Punshon.  The first murder is only solved by confession, and the clue which leads Bobby Owen to lead his Superintendent Ulyett to the truth about the second murder has been planted well in sight long before the deed is contemplated.  Yet it is difficult to see how the author, having once determined to make his crimes but two strokes in a game of Etrurian politics played out, more or less underground, in England, could have lengthened or diversified his list of suspects and yet played fair.  Bobby Owen has, in this his eleventh case, more rough and tumble than usual, is made to live an almost Henleyan song of speed, and captures a not unpleasing bride.  As always, it took me a little time to become reconciled to the telling: E.R. Punshon permits himself the leisureliness of a humorist, and keeps us on the stretch for the humour which does not come.  He gives us instead little jabs of caustic delivered from every angle.  But the character of Clarence Duke shows that the humour would be there if it were allowed.

The Times (1st March 1938):

EUROPEAN POLITICS

An empty house, an ex-convict pugilist unaccountably on the scene, a mysterious girl, and a smothered corpse: there would seem to be nothing out-of-the-way in these ingredients for a mystery novel.  Yet in Mr. Punshon’s able hands Dictator’s Way, a new Bobby Owen story, takes pride of place of many more original plots.  Deduction and the author are old companions—he tosses vital clues before the reader’s eyes with the skill and nonchalance of a professional juggler—but there are thrills as well in this tale of European politics; and a love interest too.  It would be a thousand pities, however, if marriage were to cramp Detective-Sergeant Owen’s activities.

Times Literary Supplement (Professor Alan Francis Clutton-Brock, 5th March 1938):

Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen, as even his superiors at Scotland Yard could not help noticing, is “somehow always there when he’s wanted”, and we cannot fail to perceive that it is to this mysterious and inexplicable faculty that he often owes his success in the detection of crime.  Here, in this exposure of plots and counter-plots among Ruritanian Fascists and anti-Fascists in England, it is by this means rather than by the use of his intelligence that he unravels a complicated web of wicked intrigues.

His reasons for going to the deserted house where he found a corpse, at the beginning of the novel, seem insubstantial unless he was using his intuition, and as the plot continues he wanders as inconsequently into the heart of its mystery.  But it is a good mystery, with curious and picturesque characters; and at the same time Mr. Punshon contrives to express a sympathetic and liberal concern with the state of the world at the present day, and to put forward a reasonable ethic for a good policeman who finds himself involved in the desperate politics of the modern world.  Mr. Punshon’s gentle melancholy, which has shown itself in most of his earlier detective stories, is particularly soothing and agreeable when applied to such a theme as this.

Manchester Guardian (A.S.W., 8th March 1938):

CRIME POLITICAL

Mr. Punshon’s modest, well-connected and highly efficient young detective sergeant Bobby Owen is here concerned with the larger issues that divide Europe.  For the sinister happenings that centre round a secluded mansion in Epping Forest rise from the attempt of the self-styled Redeemer of Etruria to stifle the activities of refugee Etrurians in this country who aim at overthrowing his tyrannous rule.  It is a theme that many a sensational writer would divorce from all reality, but the plot that Mr. Punshon slowly and consistently reveals has an authentic background of English life that gives it credibility.  His characters are more than pawns; they have life.  His descriptions of the procedure and apparatus of modern detection are in their wealth of detail both convincing and interesting.  When the action of the story leaves the London of which he writes with such intimate facility he gives you a mad race of three cars through the night to a remote spot on the eastern coast that has the same nightmarish quality for the reader as it had for Bobby.  And when the most striking character in the tale, a young Etrurian democrat and patriot, emerges in his real colours and has to take to the high seas with Bobby as his admiring prisoner, the chase of a supremely handled small craft by an armed larger one off the Scottish coast makes a memorable adventure.  The author shows yet again that he can bring style, a sense of character, and ingenuity in plot to a happy combination in detective fiction.

The Saturday Review (20 August 1938):

Agents of wicked foreign power in England meet sticky ends.  Sgt. Bobby Owens does the investigating.  International intrigue yarn with murderous trimmings and a love affair.  Some good scenes but on the whole – Stuffy.