Authors: E.R. Punshon
When an old acquaintance of Bobby Owen's from Oxford days turns up out of the blue, he needs help. Bobby little suspects that investigating the sinister enclave of âDictator's Way' will quickly set in train a series of momentous events, involving Bobby in a fistfight with an ex-professional boxer, kidnap, peril at sea and international intrigue â not to mention encounters with the mysterious and attractive Olive Farrar in whom Bobby might just have met his match.
is the tenth of E.R. Punshon's acclaimed Bobby Owen mysteries, first published in 1938 and part of a series which eventually spanned thirty-five novels.
Conventional wisdom about the Golden Age of detective fiction tells us that mystery writers of that era sought to provide readers with escape from the manifold unpleasant realities around them in the 1920s and 1930s. Although Golden Age mysteries “deal with violent death and violent emotions,” writes P.D. James in her 2009 genre study,
Talking about Detective Fiction
, “they are novels of escapeâ¦.Rereading the Golden Age novels with their confident morality, their lack of any empathy with the murderer and the popularity of their rural settings, readers can still enter nostalgically this settled and comfortable world.” Similarly, in
, Julian Symons' hugely-influential mystery genre study (originally published in 1972), Symons claims that such unpleasant facts as widespread unemployment and the rise of dictatorships “were ignored in almost all the detective stories of the Golden Age.” Thus there was in these books, so this argument runs, little talk of--and certainly little empathy for--strikers and other strife makers at home, and no serious look at human atrocities committed overseas by brutal totalitarian regimes in Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy and Japan.Â
Whatever its merit in the case of some Golden Age detective fiction authors, this conventional view (challenged of late) certainly does no justice to the detective novels of E.R. Punshon. In 1934, Punshon integrated into the plot of his puzzler
the Nazi ascendance to power in Germany, taking the opportunity to condemn the nascent regime in no uncertain terms. Two years later, in
The Bath Mysteries
, he sympathetically evoked life among the down-and-outs in Thirties Britain, suggesting influence from the politically conscious works of George Orwell, like Punshon an author in the stable of leftist publisher Victor Gollancz (see particularly Orwell's bracing 1933 book
Down and Out in Paris and London
). In 1937, a year before the publication of
, Punshon in
Mystery of Mr. Jessop
was inspired by recent incidents of politically-motivated mob violence in London's East End, such as the so-called “Battle of Cable Street” (4 October 1936) wherein Fascists, Communists and other groups waged a series of violent street clashes involving tens of thousands of fractious combatants. With
(1938) E.R. Punshon directly addresses the spread of totalitarian ideologies in Europe, while also finding time at long last to introduce love into the life of his likeable series sleuth, Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen.
Julian Symons confidently pronounces that “[i]t is safe to say that almost all the British [detective fiction] writers in the twenties and thirties, and most of the Americans, were unquestionable right-wing.” After having spent many years reading Golden Age detective fiction, I am not prepared to concede the safety of Symons' verdict on the political inclinations of “almost all” British mystery writers from this period; yet, in any event, E.R. Punshon surely is one of the clearest exceptions to Symons' rule. Although connected, through his mother's side of the family, to a line of Scottish baronets, the Halkets of Pitfarrane Castle, Punshon's immediate maternal and paternal connections, which sprang from the far northern English counties of Northumberland and Durham, were associated with trade--sometimes successfully, but often not. Both Robert Punshon and David Halket, his father and maternal grandfather, went bankrupt at points in their business careers, and the elder Punshon appears eventually to have separated from his wife and sons. Despite intense imaginative leanings--in later years he recalled “when I was not much older than [seven] my chief pleasure was to escape all alone for long solitary walks during which I told myselfâ¦interminable tales with myself for the splendid heroâ¦as I grew older I began to put these dreams down on paper”--Punshon, upon the death of his schoolteacher mother when he was sixteen, most prosaically had to go to work in a railroad company's accounts office. After a few years of what he deemed intolerable drudgery Punshon left office work to pursue a peripatetic life of quixotic career endeavors in the wilds of Canada and the United States, finally returning to England and a fiction writing career around the time of the death of Queen Victoria. Not until late middle age, with the success of his Golden Age mystery fiction, would Punshon achieve in his writing career real “distinction,” as Dorothy L. Sayers would so memorably put it in her 1933
review of his premier Bobby Owen detective novel (for more on these matters see my introductions to Punshon's
Death Comes to Cambers
All the rest of his life Punshon seems never to have gotten over a feeling that he had been denied material social and educational chances from which, with his own natural intelligence and industry, he could have taken considerable advantage. Over and over in his fiction he condemns class hierarchy and inherited social privilege. His best-known series sleuth, Scotland Yard policeman Bobby Owen, grandson and nephew of earls, feels mostly embarrassment over his high-toned background, hotly resenting whatever allusions to it that are made by police colleagues and private citizens he encounters in the course of his criminal investigations. Yet while Punshon was no conservative, neither was he a socialist; indeed, he seems to have held the Soviet experiment in disdain, especially after Stalin's late Thirties parade of purges and show trials, to which Bobby witheringly alludes in
Mystery of Mr. Jessop
. (“Bump 'em off good and plenty,” he says of the “important role” the police have to play in the Communist state.) During the Golden Age of detective fiction and afterward Punshon, a firm believer in moderation, supported Britain's Liberals rather than the Conservative or Labour parties. In 1947 he made his personal political faith quite clear when, in his capacity as a member of the executive committee of the Streatham Liberal Association, he wrote a letter to the Liberal newspaper the
, for which he had reviewed crime fiction between 1935 and 1942, denouncing both the “Tory reactionary” and the “Socialist doctrinaire” as equal menaces to “freedom and general well-being.”
Punshon's concern with menaces to “freedom and general well-being” is plainly evident in his tenth Bobby Owen detective novel,
, published in 1938, the year that would see the German occupation of Austria and the Sudetenland and the climax of the Great Purge in the Soviet Union. (The Italian invasion of Ethiopia had already taken place a few years earlier.) The title itself has a double meaning, literal and figurative. Literally it refers to a section of London road where wheeled traffic has been debarred at the behest of a “wealthy city man” named Judson, who disliked vehicular traffic near his residence, a mansion known as The Manor. Judson since has decamped to “one of those huge new blocks of flats that of late years have risen in the West End of London like fungi in a field after heavy rain,” but he has maintained The Manor as a convenient locale for entertaining special lady friends and hosting parties where cards are played for high stakes and blue films aired to leering appreciation.
After Bobby Owen discovers the man who managed these parties for Judson has been murdered at The Manor, it comes to the attention of both Bobby and Superintendent Ulyett of Scotland Yard that they have on their hands a murder case with potential political implications, for among those who attended Judson's parties were members of the staff of the Etrurian Embassy, including the Ambassador himself; and most of the suspects seem to have connections to Etruria, a country located between Germany and Italy and ruled over by a despot, the Redeemer, obviously modeled after Hitler and Mussolini. When Punshon describes Bobby's visit to the home of a native Etrurian suspect, fashionable restauranteur Thomas Troya, the author's scorn for Europe's self-aggrandizing totalitarian strongmen is palpable:
Over the mantelpiece hung a large portrait of the Etrurian dictator, “Redeemer of his country,” in his characteristic country-redeeming attitude so strongly reminiscent of Ajax defying the lightning. It was flanked on either side by portraits of his brother dictators of Germany and Italy, though these portraits were of smaller size and had less ornate framesâenough in these days, Bobby thought, to produce an international incident. Between the windows hung another large portrait of the Etrurian Redeemer, in the company of two or three babies, one of whom he was embracing on the well-established Eatandswill precedent. There were various other portraits of the same gentleman scattered about here and there. In all, including those on the side tables and wall brackets, Bobby counted nineâ¦.In one corner there was also a picture representing another and different Redeemer, but it hung awry, and was evidently there on sufferance, before final removal.
Through a murder implicating the fictional country of Etruria, E.R. Punshon in
decries the rise of aggressive totalitarian states in Europe (here the figurative meaning of the novel's title is suggested). To me there is little about
that seems calculated to offer nostalgia-minded readers of Golden Age detective fiction happy visions of, to again quote P.D. James, a “settled and comfortable world,” nor do the characters advance with absolute clarion conviction moral certitudes about murder. When a suspect in the case demands of him, “what is one murder, more or less,” compared to the horrific mass slaughter occurring all around the world (“Chinese women and children are blown to bits by the thousandsâ¦.Sailors are drowned in the Mediterranean, people are shot wholesale in Russia and Spain”), Bobby responds modestly, “It's all over my head”; though he pleas that it is the policeman's job “to see the rules are kept, because if they aren't, there's such an awful mess around.”
For those who are less interested in politics than people
also has appeal. Following Dorothy L. Sayers' popular precedent with her characters Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Punshon in this novel has Bobby Owen fall desperately in love with an entrancing suspect, one Olive Farrar, owner of a chic hat shop in Piccadilly. For Cupid 1938 proved a busy period indeed concerning the affairs of handsome gentleman detectives, for that very same year he also aimed his bow with deadly accuracy at Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion. (John Rhode's charming series police detective, Jimmy Waghorn, would be stricken with amour the next year.) For Bobby the course of true love does not run altogether smooth in Dictator's Way, but I shall leave the readers of this series to peruse the novel and see for themselves just what choppy waters the determined young man encounters.
A pathetic instinct of self-preservation they share with others of the humbler of God's creatures, induces authors to proclaim at the beginning of their books that all characters and incidents therein introduced are entirely imaginary. It is true that this makes not the slightest difference if some far-off, teetotal John Smith the author has never heard of can detect some shadow of resemblance between himself and the John Smith mentioned in the book as having occasionally partaken of the festive cocktail.
For this story, too, one makes the ritual declaration in the hope that at any rate, if a hitherto unheard-of teetotal John Smith does emerge from the darkness of the unknown, the award of damages may be at least a little mitigated. It is declared, therefore, and with emphasis, that all the characters in
are entirely imaginary. None of them bears the least resemblance in circumstance or disposition to any living individual. They are, one and all, wholly and solely the creatures of the novelist's imagination. The incidents also are all pure invention.
Nevertheless, it remains to be asserted that everything in the story is drawn from actual occurrences in the life of to-day. Names have been changed. Characters have been invented. The incidents recounted bear no resemblance to any event that has ever taken place. Localities are as different as transfer over land and sea can make them. But the flow and counter-flow of incident, of motive, of idea do present an image, seen through the author's imagination, of certain events, culminating in the deaths by violence of two men of high integrity and character, that took place not so very long ago, upon the continent of Europe. It is true that no hint of such open violence, actual or contemplated, has yet been recorded in this country.