Friday’s Forgotten Book: Music Tells All by E. R. Punshon

One of my great finds last year was the prolific Golden Age author Ernest Robertson Punshon (1872-1956). Writing as E. R. Punshon, he released 35 books featuring Bobby Owen, an Oxford-educated policeman who worked his way up through the Scotland Yard ranks. He wrote another five featuring Sergeant Bell, a plodding, lugubrious London detective who nevertheless always managed to resolve his cases. Still another 20 books were stand-alone mysteries.  Dorothy L. Sayers regarded Punshon’s work highly, saying that “all his books have that elusive something which makes them count as literature, so that we do not gulp them furiously down to get to the murderer lurking at the bottom, but roll them slowly and deliciously upon the tongue like old wine.” While I don’t like them quite that much, I enjoy reading Punshon, sometimes more for his portrayal of England during the first half of the 20th century than for his plots, which are not always as solid as one could hope, although some reviewers compare him to John Dickson Carr.

In Music Tells All, published by Victor Gollancz in 1948, Bobby Owen in his 24th outing and Sergeant Bell, promoted now to Inspector, team up on a case that moves back and forth between a rural village and London. The story starts with Bobby and his wife Olive searching for a place to live. She responds to an advertisement for a home at a comfortable distance from his job at Scotland Yard. Expecting a crowd of competing seekers, they rush out only to find a quiet village with a house that seems perfect. The landlord names a rental fee far less than they expected in this time of extreme scarcity and they jump to sign the lease. They soon learn that an odd neighbor is given to playing her piano tempestuously at all hours. Everyone in the village gives Miss Bellamy a wide berth, except for their landlord who seems to be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed.

Bobby is distracted by a jewelry heist in London which involves a wild car chase through the city streets. One of the rings from the robbery is found in the village where Bobby just moved and the body of a stranger shows up in a nearby dismantled bomb shelter, bringing in Inspector Bell. The obvious suspect is a chauffeur who disappeared about the same time but several of the neighbors warrant closer inspection. Bobby doesn’t understand how his new village is tied to the robbery but can see that it is. Poor Olive is constantly searching for food for the two of them.

There aren’t enough clues to suggest the actual culprit and the motivation behind the crimes so the ending requires too much explanation, but all in all this is a good story, describing as it does life in post-war England and the citizenry determined to make do and get by.

An earlier version of this review appeared on Kevin’s Corner, https://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/2017/08/aubrey-hamilton-reviews-music-tells-all.html, on 21 August 2017.

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