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Authors: E.R. Punshon

Death of a Beauty Queen

BOOK: Death of a Beauty Queen

Death of A Beauty Queen

Mr. Sargent, the manager of the Brush Hill Central Cinema, wished he had never held a Beauty Competition. Caroline Mears, the predicted winner, had already caused trouble with one of the other girls. Paul Irwin, a strong Puritan and influential councillor, had taken it into his head to come backstage to look for his son Leslie, who hoped to marry Caroline against his father's wishes. Just as the winner of the competition was being announced, different news spread through the cinema like lightning – Caroline Mears had been murdered!

Superintendent Mitchell of Scotland Yard and his young sergeant, Bobby Owen, were faced with one of the most puzzling cases of their careers. There were at least seven suspects, against four of whom an equally good case could be made out. There was Paul Irwin's maddening reiteration that he had ‘nothing to say' to all questions, and a multitude of confusing evidence, none of which fitted the main jigsaw puzzle. Conundrums abound in this whodunit: one which will keep even the most seasoned mystery reader guessing – right to the very last page.

Death of A Beauty Queen
is the fifth of E.R. Punshon's acclaimed Bobby Owen mysteries, first published in 1935 and part of a series which eventually spanned thirty-five novels.


“I don't like religion in murder cases—complicates things so.”

Superintendent Mitchell,
Death of a Beauty Queen

In 1902 Ernest Robertson Punshon, a twenty-eight-year-old life assurance agent residing at 17 Makin Street, Walton-on-the-Hill, Liverpool with a retired schoolteacher aunt, had recently published his first novel,
Earth's Great Lord
, a romance of the Australian outback; yet the nascent author was not above participating in weekly writing competitions held by
The Academy
, a London literary review. In July of that year Punshon succeeding in winning
The Academy
's one Guinea prize, for the “best description of a dream,” beating out thirty-five other competitors. Punshon's dream, as he detailed it, was a child's nightmare about sin and divine retribution:

I dreamed that I stood on a low sandy shore. Before me stretched a great sea, murmurous with tiny waves. Beyond the horizon, hidden from my sight but not from my knowledge, sat an angel. At his feet were a number of envelopes bearing the names of men. These he was opening one by one at regular intervals and from each in succession flashed out a huge light spreading over half the sky and proclaiming eternal judgment, the salvation or damnation of the person whose name had been written.

Presently I became aware that the next to be opened would declare my own fate. I ran blindly to and fro, watching dreadfully, till at last the great light flashed out, the sky flamed with the sentence, and as I strained to read it, I awoke.

I suppose that at the time of this dream I would have been about ten years old. I distinctly remember my frantic efforts to be very good indeed for several days thereafter.

The conflict between imperatives of wrath and mercy forms the theme of E. R. Punshon's fifth Bobby Owen mystery,
Death of a Beauty Queen
(1935), a novel in which the author depicts psychologically credible murder in arealistic environment. The dead lovely of the title is scheming Caroline Mears, knifed in her dressing room on the night of her triumphin the beauty competition at Brush Hill Central Cinema. Caroline Mears had been determined at all costs to make it to Hollywood and see her name—altered, she imagined, to “Caroline La Merre”—“flared in electric splendor in every busy street throughout the world”; but now someone has forever short-circuited her shining dream of global fame and fortune.

It becomes the job of what to E. R. Punshon's growing audience of devoted readers was the now pleasingly familiar team of Superintendent Mitchell and Sergeant Bobby Owen (along with a cast of supporting policeman) to discover who murdered Caroline Mears. Numerous suspects are on hand in the case, starting with Lilian Ellis, a hot-tempered rival beauty who aimed—rather less ambitiously than Caroline, but certainly no less anxiously—to use a strong finish in the contest as a stepping stone to securing a coveted mannequin position at the Brush Hill Bon Marche; but also including a company of males who for varying reasons had become interested in Caroline's fate: Mr Sargent, “owner—under his bankers of course—of the cinema”; photographer Roy Beattie, rather a partisan on behalf of Lilian Ellis; an unnamed “tough looking bloke” who stormed past the doorman the night of the contest, looking for a “Carrie Quin”; Claude Maddox and Leslie Irwin, young gentlemen trailing in Caroline's wondrous wake; and the puritanical Paul Irwin, Leslie's righteous father, who as a member of the borough council had fiercely fought to force Sunday closures of Brush Hill cinemas. The elder Irwin fervently believed that Caroline Mears was a designing wanton who, left to her own devious devices, was sure to wreck his son's promising young life.

From his own family history E. R. Punshon was well aware that men could founder on the shoals of sensual allurements. His mother's older brother, Richard Webb Halket, once Deputy Commissioner and Chief Assistant of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs in Shanghai, had embezzled heavily from his office, served a two-year prison term, frequented brothels and finally been successfully sued for divorce after deserting his wife, Rose Bloom Halket, and three children and cohabiting with a barmaid, Dora M'Guff, in Woolloomooloo, Australia. Surely one need not necessarily have been possessed of a puritanical mindset to have looked askance at these disreputable episodes from a life.

Death of a Beauty Queen
, however, it is religious zealotry that comes in for criticism from several of the characters, including Bobby Owen himself. Mr Sargent—a biased party, to be sure—denounces Paul Irwin as “an awful old fanatic….Sticks at nothing to get his own way, because he's so sure he's right and doing the work of the Lord, and everyone else is in outer darkness.” At another point in the novel, Superintendent Mitchell observes: “Religious people of the Paul Irwin kind are so jolly sure all the rest of us are vile sinners they're always ready to believe the worst—of other people.” For his part, Bobby not only references the famous free-thinker Voltaire but also invokes the wisdom of the feminist and pacifist Christian minister Maude Royden, a Liverpool contemporary of Punshon's: “I remember once hearing Maude Royden say, in a sermon, that when a member of her congregation came to her and said: ‘God is telling me to do something,' her first thought was always: ‘Now what crime or folly are you going to commit?'”

“It's so easy to take your own wishes for divine,” concurs Superintendent Mitchell, “and so convenient, because then you know you're right, you and God against the world.” Yet rather than wrathfully cast stones at moral transgressors, we can always, of course, choose mildly to turn the other cheek. In
Death of a Beauty Queen
, there is, in addition to an interesting murder puzzle (with one particularly clever clue), a complex and compelling human drama, enriched with memorable portrayals of major and minor characters alike. Dorothy L. Sayers astutely emphasized this latter point when she warmly reviewed the novel in the
Sunday Times
. “Some readers prefer their detective stories to be of the conventional kind,” allowed Sayers, “they like to enjoy the surface excitement without the inward disturbance that comes of being forced to take things seriously.” Yet Sayers believed the future of crime fiction lay with serious-minded authors like E.R. Punshon, who had the desire, as well as the capacity, “to persuade us that violence really hurts.”
Death of a Beauty Queen
was, she concluded, “a fine and interesting novel, where the emotional discords are resolved in a strain of genuine pathos….”

I hope that modern readers will agree, as I do, with Dorothy L. Sayers that in
Death of a Beauty Queen
we have a Golden Age detective novel that, if not alone in its time, was, along with select others from its day, ahead of it. In the novel the knife blow that slays the beauty queen does not simply remove a piece from a chessboard in some antiseptic murder game; it sparks a deadly fuse in a succession of poignant human tragedies.
Death of a Beauty Queen
merited Sayers' commendation eight decades ago, just as it amply merits revival today.

Curtis Evans

Beauty's Stab

She came out quickly, self-confidently, royally, with none of that hesitation or apparent self-mistrust that had marked the entry of some of the other competitors on the stage of the Brush Hill Central Cinema. Turning, she faced the crowded audience, and stood, superb and lovely, her tall figure outlined against the neutral-tinted curtain that formed certainly an equal background for all, but that also showed off very effectively her gown of gold brocade, cut in the new sweeping ‘stream-line' fashion.

For just the fraction of a second there was complete silence, and for just that moment her self-confidence wavered, so that a passing fear flickered an instant in her light, rather hard, blue eyes – her worst feature, perhaps, but one not very noticeable at first or at a distance. Then it passed as she understood that her confidence had not been misplaced, that it was her beauty itself that had imposed upon this crowded audience the silence she had mistaken during one brief instant for indifference, but that in reality was appreciation far deeper than the facile rounds of clapping some of the other competitors had earned.

But now the applause began, low at first, then swelling into organ notes that, filled all the building, that bathed the soul of the girl standing there in an almost physical delight.

It flowed about her; it enveloped her; she made little movements with her hands as if to draw it closer to her; she seemed to herself no longer human but half divine; she seemed to float above the world – above all the rest of humanity – borne up to the very heavens on the wings of this tumultuous cheering. Instinctively she closed her eyes. A profound instinct, a strange sub-conscious knowledge in her inner self, told her they had in them some quality that at times was apt to check the enthusiasm of her admirers, and let her curled, exquisite eyelashes droop upon her rounded cheek. It was a gesture she had practised. It had a modest and demure air; it gave, she was well aware – for she knew these things as a child knows how to breathe or smile or cry – an added attraction of contrast to her somewhat flamboyant beauty, to her masses of golden hair, her large, strongly marked features of almost perfect shape and harmony, her imposing height, so that she seemed a veritable goddess of old Grecian dream, even though to some eyes it might have seemed also that there showed a hint of a possible coming grossness.

Still the applause continued. It beat into her soul like fine music on one who understands; she glowed in it like metal white hot in the furnace; she felt it wafting her away to all those delights of fame and wealth and power wherefor panted her soul. To herself she seemed to soar high above the life of common, everyday humanity, to be freed from all those trammelling bonds of necessity and need that hitherto had irked. To her it was as a release from everyday existence, from life itself, and in such a moment how could she remember that a release from existence and from life means merely – death?

Hollywood! That was the magic word of power this cheering seemed to her to spell. How glad she was that now she could start for Hollywood at once, and could scorn the tuppenny-ha'penny little engagement at the Colossal Film Studio, Palmer's Hill, that was the prize to-night, and that this continuous applause seemed to certify already hers. She supposed that the news of this triumph to-night would at once be recorded everywhere, for all her favourite film papers agreed in telling her how continually the wide world was ‘scoured' for possible ‘stars' by the magnates of the films. So, knowing all about her, they would welcome her eagerly; they would ‘groom' her a little, and then her career of triumph would begin.

From under her half-closed lids, with those long curling lashes that veiled so well the hard appraising look her eyes sometimes showed, she bestowed an approving smile upon the spectators. They were applauding still – as, indeed, was only right and proper. How proud they would all be to remember this night, in times to come when her name was famous everywhere, and ‘Caroline Mears' flared in electric splendour in every busy street throughout the world. Well, she did not grudge them their satisfaction, even though she felt they ought to pay a little extra each for the privilege – a little extra in cash that should be hers for herself alone. Only, was ‘Mears' too ordinary a name for the bright magnificence of the lights that she foresaw? She decided on the instant to change it to ‘Demeres' – or ‘Le Merre' perhaps. Yes, ‘Le Merre' it should be – or, no, ‘La Merre,' of course, and a slight pucker of anxiety creased for an instant the satin-like smoothness of her brow as her glance picked out, standing alone at one side of the auditorium – those hard, clear, brightly shining eyes of hers possessed wonderful sight – a tall, straight man, apparently of middle age, who stood there, erect and stern and rigid, taking no part in the general applause that now was slackening a little.

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