Four Strange Women (E.R. Punshon)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

One of Punshon’s oddest books. Bobby Owen is transferred to Wychshire to act as secretary to the Chief Constable and is plunged into the strange case of a she-devil who makes men fall in love with her, bleeds them dry and then kills them. Although a passing knowledge of a vampire’s physical appearance makes the murderess obvious on her first appearance, there’s an awful lot of interest. The plot soon moves from Wychshire’s forests to a nude club for wealthy decadents operating from an East End mission hall. The plot bogs down a bit in the middle with a lot of plodding from here to there which recalls Mystery Villa or The Bath Mysteries rather than one of Punshon’s usual complicated webs. It becomes grim and gripping towards the end, with a sense of urgency rare outside John Dickson Carr, and concludes with a Grand Guignol scene that is horribly effective. Although some what flawed as a detective story, well told.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 28th April 1940): In Four Strange Women, Bobby Owen is confronted with the case of a vampire with a spider complex.  Identity of woman who murders whole string of lovers is neatly concealed among several promising neurotics.  Plot complicated by active vengeance.  Hard work by Owen in thick atmosphere of violent decadence.

Manchester Guardian (W., 29th April 1940): GHOULISH

There is an uncommonly strong apprehension of impending horror throughout the latest investigation of Sergeant Bobby Owen.  And well there might be, for the trail of violent deaths leads at last to a ghoulish creature whose sex obsession prompts her to fascinate a rapid sequence of males and to destroy each in turn when she has had her way with him.  There are medieval precedents, but to pitch such a creature into modern English life makes more strongly for the macabre than is Mr. Punshon’s custom.  Once aroused, our suspicions flit feverishly from one to another of a group of young “society” women whose lives are interlocked; but Bobby keeps his usual cool head, and his patient investigations, which range from a forest in the Midlands to a licentious night club conducted in a derelict London mission hall, give credibility to a melodramatic tale.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 4th May 1940): The Teilhets’ novel [The Broken Face Murders] has both character and atmosphere.  Mr. Punshon too specialises in atmosphere in his new Bobby Owen story, Four Strange Women.  As a reward for his successful private investigation in France Owen is offered an inspectorship in the county police as a solid basis on which to start his married life.  He learns of a mysterious lady vampire who first sucks her lovers of their worldly wealth and then, not content with that, does them to death.  Owen is invited to find the lady out of four ladies in the pack.  The eerie atmosphere is well created, but it may be doubted whether the reader will be so overwhelmed by it as to credit the invisibility of the lady.  Mr. Punshon invites us to believe that a number of wealthy young society gentlemen could fall in love with a girl without ever mentioning her name or describing her to any of their friends.  And when Owen has climbed into the cloudy mountains to find the wicked lady they bring forth a mouse.  Mr. Punshon, who is usually so good, has had an off-day.