The Cross-Word Mystery (E.R. Punshon)

By E. R. Punshon

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1934; US, Knopf, 1934, as The Crossword Murder

My review

An extremely disappointing tale, because the first three-quarters are so good, reminiscent of vintage Connington. Bobby Owen is sent undercover to the home of a stockbroker who believes his brother was murdered and fears that he will soon be murdered, and gets involved in a complicated tale of Airedales, crosswords, and buried treasure, as well as a real estate plan developed by an organising genius (equated with Nazism: the lust for power, determining others’ destinies and believing they are doing what is right, regardless of the cost in human life – usurping the throne of God). The solution, however, is an anti-climax, based, as it is, in greed and professional crime rather than the intense emotions that are Punshon’s forte.

Note similarities to: Great Uncle Meleager’s Will (Sayers), The Fashion in Shrouds (Allingham) and The Great Game (Bailey). Note also early outrage against Nazism and the treatment of Jews (concentration camps, persecution and extermination), themes which would be developed in Dictator’s Way.

Contemporary reviews

The Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 2nd May 1934):

The Cross-Word Mystery gives us an opportunity for discussing two of the most awkward of the technical problems that confront the mystery writer.  First, at what point must we release our vital clue so as to be fair to the reader without exploding the secret prematurely?

Mr. Punshon has erred more than a little on the side of generosity.  As is obvious from the title a cross-word is the master-key to the plot and the puzzle in question is presented complete to the reader for solution at a moment in the action when Detective Owen has himself had no more than a glimpse of it.  This fact, together with the title and the map on the fly-leaf, gives us an immense advantage over Owen, and the main lines of the story become obvious to us just a little bit too early for complete enjoyment.  The cross-word is supposed to be constructed by an amateur, and is rather unnecessarily amateurish; it would, I think, have been better to place a few more obstacles in our way.  We are, as a nation, so exceedingly cross-word-conscious that it is a mistake to underrate our intelligence in that respect.

From Comedy to Drama

The second problem is still more delicate—it is the old, old difficulty of keeping up a unity of tone.  In his final chapter Mr. Punshon lifts the story rather abruptly from the level of polite comedy to that of heroic drama, and, being unprepared, we fail to adjust our minds before the curtain falls on the hideous scene.

It is, of course, a compliment to Mr. Punshon’s work that criticism should focus itself on such points.  Only when a high level of artistic accomplishment has been reached do we begin to talk severely about values and tone-balance.  Bobby Owen (B.A., Oxon) makes better use of his University training in this seaside country-house atmosphere than in the melodramatic masquerade of Death Among the Sun-bathers, and Superintendent Mitchell delights us again with his caustic comments on police officialdom.

The startling phenomenon of the line of light that is heard to vanish on p. 136 does not invalidate the general excellence of the writing; a stray slip or two may be due to the fact that this book has followed rather hard upon the heels of Mr. Punshon’s last.


Times Literary Supplement (21st June 1934):

George Winterton and Archibald Winterton, brothers and retired business men, lived on opposite sides of Suffby Cove.  Archibald was drowned.  George, for reasons which he was disinclined to give, thought that his brother had been murdered and that he would be murdered also.  The police gave him protection, stationing in his house the young policeman Owen, who is already known to Mr. Punshon’s readers.  But in spite of Owen’s presence, George was murdered.  There are several possible suspects.  But the first problem is to discern the motive.  The clue to that is to be found in a crossword puzzle.  It is not easy to see why George should have entrusted his secret to such a medium.  But if that improbability is disregarded, the story is well managed and the interest is well sustained.  The final catastrophe is violent and, when it comes, rapid in movement.


The Saturday Review (10 November 1934):

Two British brothers, gold-standard devotees, violently pass on, and Bobby Owen finally solves gruesome crossword puzzle.  Moves a bit leisurely, but basic idea is engrossing and denouement is grisly knockout.  18 kt.