The Bath Mysteries (E.R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1936; US, Hillman-Curl, 1938

An unusually sinister tale from this author. Since the Home Secretary used to deliver milk to Lord Hirlpool’s father, Lord Hirlpool’s nephew Bobby Owen is assigned to investigate the death of his cousin, boiled alive in his bath, the second of three “bath mysteries,” victims of a sinister conspiracy that ranks with that of the Pale Horse. Having discovered the conspiracy, however, Bobby is surprisingly obtuse, for the murderer is obvious from very early on, particularly to those who have read the author’s earlier Cottage Murder (1931). Although rather slow moving, the reader’s interest is kept by the sustained excellence of Punshon’s writing. A very real atmosphere of horror is suggested by his queer turns of phrase and grotesque characters, among whom Percy Lawrence is notably affecting.

Blurb (US)

Mr. Punshon’s inimitable detective, Bobby Owen, found himself confronting an investigation which involved his own titled but impecunious family.  As usual, he did laborious and fruitful work without much tangible recognition, for the author’s Scotland Yard is convincingly realistic.

This time the cards were stacked against Bobby.  He knew fully well the case of his cousin’s mysterious disappearance, but he could not understand the baffling circumstances surrounding Ronnie Owen’s death.  Ronnie was a drunkard, but even a drunkard has sufficient presence of mind to refrain from remaining in a tub of boiling water for thirty-six hours!  Was Ronnie’s death caused accidentally, or was it a deliberate case of murder?  Moreover, why had Ronnie taken out a heavy insurance policy shortly before his death?

Here is an amazing mystery thriller written in the celebrated author’s best vein.  The absorbing quality of the book cannot be questioned, the trail is cleverly confused, and the writing is Mr. E. R. Punshon at his best.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Mrs. Elizabeth L. Sturch, 18th July 1936):

It becomes quite clear early in this tale, when Sergeant Bobby Owen is called in to investigate the mysterious death of a cousin of his, that an unusually far-seeing villain has hit on an ingenious and fairly simple version of the murder-for-insurance-money.  He has carried out this scheme on such a large scale that one wonders why the police’s suspicions were not sooner aroused; but it is perhaps true that insurance companies will put up with a good deal before causing a scandal which may scare off their clients.  At any rate Bobby Owen, a most satisfactory hero, unearths several mysterious deaths almost at once, and before very long neither he nor the reader is left in much doubt of the identity of the murderer.  To prove it is, however, a more difficult matter, and the author tackles it in a melodramatic way which provides plenty of thrills.

Though the plot itself is rather unusually wild and improbable, Mr. Punshon has produced a book which is a pleasure to read because of the decision and wit with which it is written; one feels that he knows how to handle the English language and enjoys doing so.  The story also contains many amusing satirical touches, and some glimpses of a touching love story.  After so much praise it will not, we hope, be thought unduly critical to remark that, when an important part of the plot hinges on the philosopher Leibnitz, his name should be correctly spelt.

Observer (Torquemada, 2nd August 1936):

In The Bath Mysteries Mr. Punshon more than makes up any ground he may have lost in Death of a Beauty Queen and Death Comes to Cambers.  This time Bobby Owen finds himself plunged into an investigation which seems to involve his own impecunious but titled family.  As usual he does laborious and fruitful work without much tangible recognition, for Mr. Punshon’s Scotland Yard is convincingly realistic.  The trail is cleverly confused, but I think that Mr. Punshon is optimistic if he hopes that the majority of his readers will share the ignorance which causes his Oxonian Detective-Sergeant to fail to pick up a clue which his creator rather confidingly drops.  But the fact remains that Bobbie does so fail, and gives himself a lot of trouble in consequence.  The captious could find small points to criticise in this story; but there can be no question of its absorbing quality, and the writing is Mr. Punshon at his best.

The Saturday Review (3 December 1938):

Death in tub of Bobby Owen’s cousin starts that young C.I.O.-man on trail of murder crew of sorts.  Impressive if not totally convincing, yam of insurance-murders, man with “concussion of the soul,” and others.  Readable.