First published: UK, Gollancz, 1947
Bobby Owen’s been called to the countryside to investigate a case with serious political consequences. The local Superintendent refuses to believe a V.I.P. (a Lord) could be implicated, for political reasons. The victim’s uncle is a Left-wing agitator; his cousin is a Communist. And Helen passes by.
Helen is a disturbingly beautiful girl, whom Bobby Owen never sees. Helen’s always just gone by, like the army of King Caractacus. All worship her for her physical beauty, but Helen “loves her own beauty far too much ever to think of sharing it with anyone else”.
The book lacks the “whodunit?” pull. Part of the problem, I think, is that many of Punshon’s books don’t have a hook. There’s seldom anything striking about the crime itself, no situation that can be summarized in a sentence. This is a murder, in rural England, involving left and right politics. Punshon’s strength lies in constructing a complicated plot, deftly weaving together plot threads on his murderous loom; and in his gallery of obsessives. (Punshon’s books are written to a pattern.)
In a way, Punshon reminds me of Dickens. Both were politically liberal satirists, whose complicated, labyrinthine plots feature characters behaving mysteriously. Both writers come up with connections – sometimes ingenious, sometimes coincidental – between characters who apparently belong to different sets of characters, or different places in the plot tapestry. (Think of Little Dorrit.)
The crime itself (the detective story) isn’t very interesting, but it picks up dramatically once the murderer starts to be revealed, with enigmatic conversations in the dark, and three men on the shore, watching another go to his death.
The ending, as often in Punshon, is powerful. Some of his climaxes reach operatic heights; the murderer’s death in Crossword Mystery (1934) really calls for Richard Strauss to set it to music. In others (Death of a Beauty Queen, even Secrets Can’t Be Kept), the solution is a letdown, because the situation and atmosphere seem to be building to a dreadful climax. Here, an uninteresting crime suddenly turns into tragedy.
Punshon excels at intense, warped psychology – people driven to murder by passions they can’t control; in this case, murder seems to be done through, rather than by, the murderer.
John O’London’s Weekly (Evelyn Banks, 16th May 1947):
Further straightforward detection, this time by our old friend Bobby Owen, occurs in Helen Passes By, by E.R. Punshon, where Bobby is temporarily assisting Scotland Yard and the Home Office in a case with a political aspect. He gets his man all right, but somehow I never quite believed in the Helen of the title whose beauty caused all the trouble and whom Bobby himself never saw. Mr. Punshon did not convince me that this Helen could set fire to any topless towers, much less inspire a couple of murders.
Observer (C.A. Lejeune, 8th June 1947):
Bobby Owen, Mr. Punshon’s stolid but generally sensible Scotland Yard detective, solves the murder of a V.I.P.’s nephew by a curiously unquestioning belief in a young woman whose beauty is “from another world”. The reader will probably accept this foible good-humouredly, but I still think that what Helen looked like isn’t evidence.