Secrets Can’t Be Kept (E. R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1944; US, Macmillan, 1946

My review

Punshon - Secrets Can't Be Kept.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

One of the best of the Wychshire stories.  It’s slow moving (and Gollancz’s miniscule print doesn’t help), but Punshon creates a strong feeling of something dreadful, as ordinary people are suddenly revealed as strange and sinister.  It’s very much an atmospheric, character-driven story—Bobby talks to villagers and investigates relationships rather than using material clues.  The disappearance of a club-footed youth with a passion for finding out things leads to a tangle involving two disappearances (one of a presumed Nazi sympathiser, the other of a girl); stolen jewels; a water-colour which may be the most remarkable picture ever painted; and the horrifying spectacle of two women having tea.  The discovery of a body in a forest with ‘a smell of rotting, a smell of things decaying’ is very effective horror, like something out of M.R. James.  The murderer becomes certain once the body is found—and is slightly a let down, since SPOILER he is a jewel thief—but there’s an atmospheric interest other than in the detection.  The ending, in which the murderer perishes in flames, is excellent.
·        Physically misshapen characters: Ned Bloom; the vicar; crippled Skinner
·        Intense characters: Mrs. Bloom—‘Melpomene in an atmosphere of currant buns and special teas at one and nine’; Roman Wright in Ch. 21
·        Mr. Pyne’s double life as a music-hall performer—humorous version of criminal clergymen and philosophers in Cottage Murder, Bath Mysteries—self-parody
·        Missing man—body found in forest: Diabolic Candelabra
·        Lord & Lady Vennery (nouveau riche): Dickens’s Veneerings

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 16th September 1944):


Wychshire’s staple industry is murder.  Inspector Bobby Owen, “chief of the still embryo Wych County C.I.D., that the war had prevented from coming to full birth”, should be equipped with tanks when peace (for the rest of the world) arrives.  In Secrets Can’t Be Kept he has to prowl round a village named Threepence, where everybody from the parson to the mildest spinster and artist-in-water-colours has some unspeakable secret to hide.  An unhappy youth who sets himself up as an amateur detective naturally disappears, which makes it necessary for Owen to pry into mysteries about bath-nights in the kitchen and cigar smoke in respectable young women’s curtains.  The story is very well devised, especially in its original notions for the disposal of bodies.


Manchester Guardian (M.C., 1st November 1944):

Secrets Can’t Be Kept, by E.R. Punshon, is a well-told tale of the unmasking of a peculiarly unpleasant murderer.  It begins quietly, with some uncertainty whether the youth who has disappeared has indeed been murdered, and Inspector Bobby Owen never fails to hold the interest as he slowly, tactfully, and patiently follows the clues that establish the fact of murder and the identity of the murderer simultaneously.  The closing chapters, when it all comes out, are melodramatic and, in the cold light of day, a bit too much for credulity.  But it is a skilful plot and one in which the interest never flags.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 24th February 1945):

Secrets Can’t Be Kept is the twentieth of the Bobby Owen series and is constructed on the same principle as the previous nineteen.  A hideous snarl of tangled humanity is presented to Bobby to unravel with the acquired knowledge that most of the threads are quite disconnected and lead nowhere near the murder he has to solve.  These loose threads spoil the unity of Mr. Punshon’s plots; but without them his murderers would be too plainly labelled.  Secrets Can’t Be Kept opens with a call at Bobby’s office by a cripple, who has been snooping around Wychshire.  Bobby refuses his offer to trade information; and the cripple disappears—for good, leaving a strong smell of blackmail in the air.  A baronet, a clergyman, a painter, an Army officer, a music-hall performer, some love interest and some stolen jewellery are all involved.  But the reader is soon saved any further trouble by the gift of an enormous clue, and can leave Bobby to finish alone.


The Saturday Review (12 January 1946):

Young Britisher who knew too much vanishes.  Insp. Bobby Owens traces him to expected conclusion turning up jewel robbery en route.  Methodical methods of Owens and his men carry story along surely but very slowly to end that brings blessed relief!  Pretty deadly.