Mystery Villa (E.R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1934


My review

Punshon - Mystery Villa.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Occasionally books are published which could have been masterpieces, but which are not. Mystery Villa is one of those books. When it was published in 1934, it was greeted with acclaim by such well-known critics as Dorothy L Sayers and Torquemada. Significantly, they praised the work for its story: for the tragedy of Miss Barton and her bridegroom, a story inspired in equal measure by Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham and Stevenson’s “Story of the Saratoga Trunk”; for Bobby Owen’s search of the house where she lived and from whence she vanished, a scene which, building up an overwhelming atmosphere of decay and horrifying poverty from such small details as a canary cage whose occupant has crumbled into dust, a drawing-room in which the flowers were shut up to decay, and an abandoned sheet of Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” is one of the finest pieces of sustained description in a detective story; and for its presentation of desperate respectability ebbing into neglect, degradation and insanity.

What neither of these critics mention is the plot, for it is disappointing. The clue of the yellow gloves gives away the murderer’s alias far too early and too easily, but there are too few clues to the murderer, who barely appears at all. This is a great shame, for, had Punshon successfully integrated theme and story (as he has done elsewhere – c.f. Death Comes to Cambers among others), this could have been one of his best. As it is, I can only recommend the reader close the book after the discovery of Miss Barton’s body and invent a solution that will satisfy him more than Punshon’s.


Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 4th November 1934):

Dorothy L. Sayers once said that this elusive thing called “distinction” which we recognise in Sherlock Holmes and in Trent’s Last Case, in The Mystery at the Villa Rose, in the Father Brown stories, “we salute every time in the works of Mr. E.R. Punshon”.  This is commendation of which to be proud, and one which the author of Information Received, and The Crossword Mystery, fairly earned.  But Doyle, Bentley, Mason, and Chesterton, were never guilty of, or never achieved, such a leisureliness of approach, such a slow opening tempo as Mr. Punshon uses in his Mystery Villa.  The consequence is that the bare bones of his story form only a small though shapely skeleton: Mr. Punshon’s method of telling us the heart-breaking tale of old mad little Miss Barton’s life in, and disappearance from, and return to Mystery Villa, and of Sergeant Bobby Owen’s connection with it all, is a blend of minute and very pleasant descriptive stippling and of an almost universally directed satire.  And though the satire tends at times to become a little shrill, Mr. Punshon has undoubtedly produced that rare thing, a thriller from which gracious phrases keep on returning to the mind.

 

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 4th November 1934):

THE PROFESSIONAL SLEUTH

SCOTLAND YARD IN FICTION

No amateur sleuths this week—Scotland Yard every time, and every time so different you would hardly believe the authors were all talking about the same place.  But, indeed, the Scotland Yard of fiction is an elfin realm, seen by every writer in the beglamoured light of his own poetic fancy.  I often wonder what Scotland Yard thinks of itself, if it ever gazes upon its own features in this curious magic mirror.

If Scotland Yard is anything like Mr. Punshon’s vision of it, then it is a delightful place indeed.  Mystery Villa is, if I may say so, a Punshon of the right brew, and I could do with a tun of such genuine matured mild and bitter.  As soon as it came into my hands I hastily turned over the pages to see if it contained plenty of Superintendent Mitchell—a gentleman for whom I cherish an uncontrollable passion.

Satisfied on this point, I settled down to enjoy myself and was not disappointed.  Mitchell is here at his most astringent best, and Bobby Owen, who threatened of late to become a little too big for his constabulary boots, has been made a sergeant and acquired, with his increased responsibilities, a modesty suitable to his station in life; though he can still pull Mitchell’s leg with bland impertinence.

The story is about one of those strange old women of whom one reads from time to time in the papers who shut themselves up with the remnants of their riches and live in unspeakably squalid secrecy till one day the groceries are not taken in, and the police break through the rust and dust and cobwebs to find that a more dreadful visitor has been there before them.  It is a superb subject for a mystery, and Mr. Punshon has handled it superbly.

The Real Thing

It is inevitable that one should compare his old Master Barton with Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, but, to my mind, the honours are with Mr. Punshon.  Miss Havisham never quite played the game; she was not too mad to interview her man of business and pay the rates; sordid considerations about company’s water and gas and firewood were never allowed to intrude on the dignity of her theatrical sorrows.  But in Mystery Villa we have the real thing—real solitude, real filth, real starvation of mind and body, with a real and ghastly necessity underlying the whole horrible superstructure of unreason.  The picture is pathetic and terrible and convincing to the last degree, and the mordant humour with which the detectives and subsidiary characters are treated serves as an acid to bite that picture unforgettably into the mind.

The balance of tone in this book seems to me to be quite perfect, and if here and there the details of the plot seem to be rather lightly sketched in, that is of small consequence in so grotesque a pattern of fantastical light and shade.

 

Times Literary Supplement (6th December 1934):

The villa was Tudor Lodge, in a suburb of London.  There, since 1890, Miss Barton had lived like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.  On the table was a wedding breakfast eaten by mice and covered with dust.  In a trunk in the one room she occupied was a mummified body, once her bridegroom, with a bullet-hole in the top of its head.  Miss Barton went out seldom and stealthily to sell a few more of her jewels and give most of the money to people in need.  At last a neighbour who had not seen her candle for some nights told the police.  They found dust, mice, corpse, but no Miss Barton.  Had she gone away; or had someone killed her for her remaining jewels?  If so, was it Conway, the cat-burglar, who had been seen running panic-stricken from the house?  Or Jones, the unusual-looking grocer’s assistant, who delivered Miss Barton’s bread and tea and tinned milk for a few weeks and then vanished?  Or his employer, Humphreys, the small shopkeeper, who also vanished unaccountably?  Miss Barton’s great-niece, Miss Yelton, behaved suspiciously, too.  So did her father.  So did her fiancé, young Aske, the inventor.  The reader, seeing all through the eyes of Police-Sergeant Bobby Owen, is kept absorbed and guessing till the end.

 

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 15th December 1934):

Mystery Villa, by that highly reputable author, Mr. Punshon, does nothing to raise or lower his reputation.  It is a stock line of goods for the British market, a typical sterling product.  The plot is a good one, the detective, Bobby Owen (B.A. Oxon, pass degree) recently promoted to Sergeant in the Metropolitan Police for his services in several previous detective stories, is modelled on Inspector French, following a long, long trail but never giving up, though often tempted to; the criminal, unfortunately, has to be a fool; and the lovers are simply a nuisance.  The story concerns the strange happenings in a suburban villa tenanted by an eccentric old lady—I am afraid any further details given might spoil the excitement which I can promise readers who do not expect too much from our overworked detective writers.