The Cottage Murder (E.R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Benn, 1931; US, Houghton, 1932

My review

Punshon’s writing is so vivid and his imagination so powerful that he occasionally promises more than he delivers. The Cottage Murder opens very effectively in a dark cottage in a storm where a wireless plays over the dead body of the hero’s uncle, watched over by a mysterious woman with whom the hero falls in love at first sight. Unfortunately, the rest of the book does not live up to this excellent scene, and there are definite signs of backsliding after Proof, Counter Proof. The plot is as complex as its predecessor, but not handled so well, for there is less detection and more thrillerish elements, and, although evidence points towards the aristocracy, this reworking of a theme from the earlier book is uninteresting. Although the truth dawns on the reader at the same time as Bell, the solution is as unconvincing as that of H. C. Bailey’s “The Lion Fish” (in Mr Fortune Speaking). The murderer is a vicious drug dealer, who imprisons the hero and heroine in the coal-cellar and tries to set them on fire, a clichéd scene which not even a meditation on love in the face of death can make believable. On being rescued, they live happily ever after on the drug money.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (1st October 1931):

When Sydney Foss, in great pecuniary distress, sets out to visit his rich uncle in a lonely country cottage, arrives late in the dark, drenched with rain, and suffering from the effects of being knocked into a ditch by a motorist, whose “clear-cut regular features were frozen now into a look of utter horror”, we may guess that the horrors of the evening have but begun.  It is true that in the cottage there is a young woman and a tinkling wireless.  But she is very distraught, and stands guard over the room in which the wireless is kept in a very suspicious manner.  Nevertheless, Sidney Foss is so much overcome by her charms that when he is knocked unconscious, on the next morning, when she disappears and the uncle is found murdered, he refuses to suppose that she can have any connexion with the crime, an attitude which naturally helps to attach the suspicion of the police to both of them.  In fact, Inspector Carter thinks that everything is simple and that his victim is in his hands, but Sergeant Bell has his doubts.  A second and a third murder follow, and the rapidly accumulating material is handled so well that the reader never loses his grasp of the complications, and if he is very attentive he has a fair chance of suspecting the culprit.


New Statesman (27th February 1932):

Though Mr. Punshon early gives us a clue to his major criminal, there are many minor surprises and several thrilling scenes of terror in The Cottage Murder.  Also there is the intuitive, gentle, mournful, humorous Sergeant Bell, one of the most charming detectives in modern fiction.  Mr. Punshon makes us very conscious that Scotland Yard is as human and fallible as are other institutions and that there are as many stupid men there as in other services to whom

Discipline is the veritable holy of holies; the weakling’s ever present help and comfort, the bully’s sure citadel of refuge, the incompetent man’s never failing support, even as to establish discipline without discipline is the surest proof of a strong man’s capacity.

Also, as Sergeant Bell mournfully avers, “there’s the same law for rich and poor, but all the same you want a lot more of it for a rich man than you do for a poor one”.  Mr. Punshon shows how the police force find it as difficult as other men to prefer Truth to success in their job of finding a criminal.


Morning Post:

Sydney Foss, nephew and heir to the murdered man, finds himself mixed up in the tangle, and has some surprising adventures before the unexpected denouement is reached.  A really well conceived and gripping story.


The Guardian:

Readers on the look-out for a story of crime which is well written and well-constructed, may be confidently recommended to The Cottage Murder…An admirable thriller.