Friday’s Forgotten Book: There’s a Reason for Everything by E. R. Punshon

Ernest Robertson Punshon (1872-1956) was a prolific Golden Age author. Writing as E. R. Punshon, he released 35 books between 1933 and 1956 featuring Bobby Owen, an Oxford-educated policeman. 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.” I think Sayers was unduly enthusiastic about Punshon, although I am happy that Dean Street Press saw fit to reprint his books, making them accessible to a new generation of readers.

There’s a Reason for Everything (Gollancz, 1945) is the twenty-first book in the saga of police detective Bobby Owen. Owen started out as a police constable in London and made his way up the ladder of Scotland Yard and then left London for the Wychshire county police force. In this story he has been promoted to Deputy Chief Constable. He’s finding it difficult to sit behind his desk the way someone of his rank should but the shortage of personnel due to the war gives him an excuse to get back out on the street.

Initially the fact that members of a paranormal research group were investigating a haunted old mansion in his territory did not interest him. When one of the researchers, a Mr. Parkinson, reported finding a pool of fresh blood in the house, consistent with one of the family legends, Bobby was intrigued and accompanied Parkinson to the abandoned property. The pool of blood that was so vivid in Parkinson’s telling was nowhere to be seen; what they did find was the body of the leader of the research mission, Dr. Clem Jones, hidden behind statuary.

Beginning his investigation, Bobby began hearing about other visitors to the mansion and rumors of a lost Vermeer masterpiece somewhere on the property. Another body, a caretaker with a secret, art experts that want to claim the Vermeer that no one has seen, and a young man that keeps disappearing when Bobby wants to talk to him complicate the job.

Punshon’s ability to create atmosphere shines in this book. His description of each visit to the estate conveys clearly the unsettling nature of the place, with dark halls and empty rooms. The culprit is cleverly concealed among a cast of eccentric suspects, all of whom behave questionably in the opinion of a hard-working police officer. There’s an amusing scene that displays a couple of the characters’ ability to think on their feet and improvise convincing lies on the spot. Subplots involve the caretaker and a young woman living in the neighborhood near the mansion.

The Kindle version (Dean Street Press, 2016) has an introduction from Curtis Evans that describes an art scandal that broke around the time the book was written and which might have provided the background for the well-developed plot. I consider this book to be one of the best in the Bobby Owen series.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Left-Handed Death by Richard Hull

Richard Hull was the pseudonym of Richard Henry Sampson (1896-1973), a British accountant who became a crime novelist, publishing 16 books beginning in 1934. During World War II he revived his accounting skills and became an auditor for the Admiralty. It is hard not to think his experiences there informed the plot of his 10th book, Left-Handed Death (Collins Crime Club, 1946).

Written as World War II was ending, the story opens with the two directors of Shergold Engineering Company, Arthur Shergold and Guy Reeves, discussing the outcome of an ongoing examination of the firm’s books by a government auditor named Barry Foster. Foster found deficiencies in the accounting practices used and was insisting on a refund of payments made to the firm under multiple government contracts. Under Shergold’s questioning Reeves lays out the process by which he says he killed Foster that afternoon. Reeves is not especially convincing in his statements. Oddly enough, Shergold is not upset or taken aback by the news. Shergold and Reeves show themselves to be unlikeable during this lengthy and rambling dialogue, and I could well believe their accounting practices were dubious. Foster didn’t sound like much of a prize, either. The three deserved each other, as far as I can tell.

Reeves decides to go to Scotland Yard to report his crime. Why is not clear. Understandably enough the police are not accustomed to individuals who visit their offices to confess to murder, so Reeves is held there while someone checks on Foster, who is indeed found dead in his flat. Reeves is so obnoxious to Detective Inspector Hardwick that Hardwick is determined to find evidence to show Reeves is innocent, despite what seems to be Reeves’ best efforts to prove himself guilty. A full-on police investigation follows.

I am not sure what to think of this book. It has an interesting structure but it isn’t particularly cohesive and the ending is anti-climactic. What seems to be an inverted mystery at first turns out not to be that at all. I began to suspect what actually happened about halfway through. My overall impression is that this was an experiment by Hull in organization or characterization or both that didn’t quite succeed. Worth reading for the references to daily life during the end of the war, if nothing else.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Skeleton Key by Lenore Glen Offord

Skeleton Key by Lenore Glen Offord (1905-1991) was first published in 1943 by Duell, Sloan & Pearce. Felony & Mayhem re-issued the book in print and digital editions in 2015. The latter has an informative introduction by journalist and crime historian Sarah Weinman, who outlines Offord’s life and career. She wrote nine crime novels and other books, short stories, and poems. She was also the full-time mystery critic for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1950 to 1982, a job she shared for a time during World War II with Anthony Boucher until he moved east to the New York Times. She won an Edgar in 1952 for her work as a critic. Most notably, Offord was the first woman to be inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars. Her activity in the group was limited, as she lived on the West Coast, but she was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan.

Skeleton Key introduced Georgine Wyeth and Todd MacKinnon, who became partners in sleuthing in three more books. Georgine is a widow with a child to support and she needs any respectable job that will pay her. She stumbles into a job typing a manuscript for a retired scientist, who insists that she work in his home to protect the confidentiality of the material. His house is in a small neighborhood peopled with clearly sketched characters, including MacKinnon and the air raid warden, whose bossiness has made him roundly despised. The blackout requirements along the West Coast were stricter than in other parts of the country, and the descriptions help set the time and the place of the story.

The warden ends up dead in what appears at first to be an accident during a blackout. Since Georgine was the first on the scene, the police had a lot of questions for her and she continued to offer them information as she undertook her own unofficial investigation, trying to understand what she heard that night. Multiple mysteries unfold, the death of the warden, the identity of neighborhood residents, and the contents of what appears to be a grave near the scientist’s house, among them.

This is another piece of crime fiction that does not fall into a clear category. It is not a police procedural, although a lot of the police investigation is described, and not really an amateur sleuth mystery, as the police arrive at the identity of the culprit. Weinman calls it domestic suspense but I think the police are too deeply involved to meet that admittedly amorphous category.

Whatever it is, this is a smoothly paced story with original characters and an unusual setting. The mystery itself is not the strongest I’ve ever seen but that should not deter students of mid-20th century crime fiction from looking into this author.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murder in Melbourne by Dulcie Gray

Dulcie Winifred Catherine Bailey Denison, known as Dulcie Gray, (1915 – 2011) was a Renaissance woman: She was a British singer and actress on stage, film, and television; she wrote 18 mysteries between 1957 and 1979; and she studied butterflies. She was vice-president of the British Butterfly Conservation Society and in 1978 she published Butterflies on My Mind, a work on the conservation and life of butterflies in Great Britain. She also wrote a short biography of J.B. Priestly, the English novelist and playwright.

Her second mystery was a stand-alone called Murder in Melbourne (Arthur Barker, 1958), which was adapted both for BBC radio and television broadcast. The book jacket blurb says she wrote the first part while she was performing in a play in Melbourne.

Richard Quayle is flying into Melbourne to ask his long-term girlfriend Anna Matheson to marry him. They had parted on less than amicable terms four months earlier, as Anna wanted to be married and Richard was happy with their relationship as it was. He is a little unsure of his reception, apprehensive that Anna had decided she could live without him during their hiatus.

Anna doesn’t answer the telephone and Richard goes to her hotel room to find the door unlocked and Anna on the bed, dead for some hours. The police find that she’d been spending a lot of time with Jack Leonard who’d left Melbourne earlier that day and that she’d attended a party given by Felix Milton the day before. Milton was known for his frequent and elaborate parties. It was there that the police believe the fatal dose of poison was given to Anna in a drink.

Richard is dissatisfied with the slow progress of the official investigation and decides to conduct one of his own. Oddly enough, the police don’t seem to object to Richard’s efforts and in fact welcome the additional information he can offer. He attends one of Milton’s parties, where he meets most of Anna’s social circle. Everyone has a secret or two, and they aren’t especially happy that Richard suspects them. One of the group is being blackmailed and is distraught at the idea that her well-hidden past might not be as shrouded as she had supposed.

All of the plot threads are sorted out during another of Milton’s parties in a classic denouement, where the police inspector masquerades as one of the guests. Overall, an interesting read but something was off about the structure or the pacing, I haven’t decided exactly what it was. The epilogue seemed to be pointless and I’m not sure what purpose it was supposed to serve. Fans of fair-play mysteries will find this story problematic because clues were sadly lacking. The portrayal of Melbourne as young but growing city was intriguing. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book and will read another by the author if the opportunity arises, although her works are not especially common.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth

Mysteries set on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day are not as common as those set around Christmas, which seems to be a particularly lethal time of year. However, The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth (Hodder & Stoughton, 1945) fits the current need admirably, especially because the setting is in a country house, a time-honored place for murder.

Patricia Wentworth was the pen name of Dora Amy Elles (1877-1961). She is most known for her traditional mysteries featuring Miss Silver, a former governess, now private investigator. Just how Miss Silver managed this transition is not spelled out in the books but it’s something I would like to know more about. However, by the time the series opens, she has established her practice and has something of a reputation among the police and the upper echelons of English society.

In the seventh outing of her career Miss Silver is called in to help the Paradine family. It’s the end of 1941 and England is focused on the war with Germany. The head of the family James Paradine announced at the family gathering on New Year’s Eve that someone had betrayed him and he would be waiting in his study until midnight for that person to confess. Early the next morning his body is found on the grounds below the balcony outside his study. The evidence suggests that he was pushed.

The family members each have a favorite suspect–the relative they like the least–and few have a solid alibi, despite the murder clearly being committed in the middle of the night. Despite the cold more than one of them was wandering around outside. Fortunately one of them encounters Miss Silver in the nearest town, where Miss Silver is buying wool to knit another garment for her niece’s children. Miss Silver is a prolific knitter of children’s apparel; in each book she completes at least one sweater or pair of socks. Miss Silver agrees to assist the family in sorting through the evidence and wonky alibis.

By this title Wentworth had settled into a groove for these books: a victim more vulnerable than he or she supposes, a romance gone awry because of or at least affected by the murder, well developed characters with plenty to hide. The books written in the 1940s had the additional backdrop of World War II and England’s deep national commitment to the war effort.