Happy New Year, everybody! A little over a year as a member of the Golden Age Detection group on Facebook, and my life has changed for the better. I have (virtually) met dozens of erudite and charming people whose passion for mystery fiction matches mine even as their knowledge far exceeds my own. As a result, I have learned about many authors of whom I had never heard, and I am grateful to learn about all the efforts to exhume their work from the dusty files marked “out of print” and distribute it to the public again where it belongs!
Nobody has had a greater impact on my knowledge and participation than Curtis Evans, whose stellar work on his blog, The Passing Tramp, is just one of the methods he employs to rekindle interest in long-forgotten authors. You can all hold Curtis (inadvertently) responsible for my entry into the blogosphere since his generous impulse to “guest” post something I had written on Agatha Christie whetted my appetite for this kind of writing. I highly recommend Curtis’ site here: http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/ as well as both his excellent books on some of the writers that Julian Symons had dismissed as “humdrums.” Many authors wrote detective stories that were every bit as clever as some of their more famous compatriots, but the passage of time and the unfortunate state of affairs for traditional detective fiction in American publishing today have not been kind to their memory.
Due to Curtis’ posts – and some fortuitous Kindle sales on Amazon – I have purchased a number of books by some of these “long lost” authors, and I thought I would review three of them to honor Curtis and other fine commentators for opening this door for me. First up is Ten Star Clues (1941) by E.R. Punshon. Considering how prolific Punshon was, it’s surprising that he is relatively unknown today. Martin Edwards, in The Golden Age of Murder, his great book on the Detection Club, suggests that Punshon, like John Rhode, Henry Wade, and other male writers, simply got lost in the strong focus the Golden Age maintained on its crime queens.
At the start of Ten Star Clues, trouble is brewing at Castle Wych in the village of Brimsbury Wych near Wychwood in the county of Wychshire. (Here is where I start to giggle a little bit.) Yet the looming war strikes the villagers as minor news compared with the fact that the Earl Wych and his wife, Countess Wych, have welcomed a stranger into their midst and announced that he is their long lost grandson and heir to their fortune! This does not sit well with Ralph Hoyle, the Earl’s nephew and, up till now, the heir apparent. Nor does it spread much joy to the rest of the household, including Ralph’s cousin and fiancée Anne, who immediately turns her amorous attentions toward the heir presumptive, their cousin Arthur, a greedy businessman who has just been bumped back a notch in the inheritance line-up, and a host of other friends and hangers-on. Ralph charges the new arrival with fakery and threatens to bring the matter to court. Tempers run high, so it’s no surprise when murder rears its ugly head – in, of the library, of course. For justice’s sake, it’s good news that Constable Bobby Owen has recently moved from London with his wife Olive and is working the case. In the course of the matter, he comes up with ten suspects and ten key clues, (hence the title), all of which leads to a successful faceoff with a double murderer.
This novel certainly pushes all the buttons of a traditional whodunit: the country home setting, the closed circle of suspects, all with their secrets, the rash of interviews, the pondering between Bobby Owen and his boss, Colonel Glynne, the chief constable. The central idea of the long lost heir is not handled in as rich a manner as Carr’s The Crooked Hinge or Josephine Tey’s Brat Ferrar, and it comes off far more lightheartedly, mainly due to the comical characterization of Bertram Hoyle, the heir in question.
Two of the best classic mystery novels about the claimant to the fortune.
In fact, one of the greatest charms of this novel is its inherent humor. My favorite character is Colonel Glynne, the perfect depiction of an upstanding and obtuse gentleman policeman. (I can hear his voice coming out of the BBC radio in one of those Agatha Christie adaptations I love so well, as one of those Milchester inspectors who have the gall to underestimate Miss Marple.) If there’s one thing Glynne appreciates, it’s his class. Here is an early moment where Bobby Owen is describing the scene of the crime:
“'(The victim) was hit in the body, but not fatally. He jumped up and ran towards the window, perhaps with some idea of tackling his assailant.’
“’Plucky of him,’ the colonel said. ‘The Hoyles always showed pluck though – traditional.’”
Fortunately, Constable Owen is not hampered by matters of social status and can look at each person on hand as a potential suspect. He is careful to let his boss run with the reins whenever he likes and then manages to right the wrongs caused by Glynne’s mismanagement of the moment. This is often played to great comic effect, such as when the Colonel insists on questioning Countess Wych’s shy young personal assistant and botches the whole interview.
Only two things really kept me from loving this book. Hand in hand with the humor come passages of oddly stilted prose, reminiscent of a “had I but known” romance thriller. Yes, I know that this was written in 1941, but Agatha Christie managed to avoid the creaky stuff! (All hail the Queen!) Here is a description of the aforementioned personal assistant:
“Strangely lovely she looked in the dim light beneath the trees that the two beams, one from Bobby’s strong electric torch, another from one of Ralph’s that he had now produced, shone on the tree trunks and the foliage around, mingling with the faint starlight falling through the leaves and branches overhead. The hard daylight might have deprived her of some of that strange beauty which at the moment was hers, for beauty it was that hung about her now till it seemed as though she were some strange, ethereal spirit of the woods that hovered there, hesitant upon the point of going.”
That sort of stuff pops up a lot in the story. Punshon’s ear for dialogue is also not the best, but that adds to the melodrama and the strong sense of period that pervades this book. Even better from the historical stance is the nice way Punshon places this village at the early stages of World War II. Even though it is played mostly in the background, we are made aware of the stirrings of social change that are about to erupt, changes that brought the upper and lower classes together, first at village meetings and later on the battlefield.
The other thing that rather spoiled matters for me was that, from beginning to end, I could tell the identity of the killer and the nature of their game. Honestly, those ten clues, clever as they were, ended up being unnecessary, and nothing that Punshon threw at me could erase the obviousness of the solution in my mind. I know I am not the brightest bulb when it comes to solving the crime, so I wonder if other readers will have the same reaction.
Is Punshon worth checking out? He sure is, if you like your mysteries traditional and leavened with a sense of humor. Punshon’s depiction of the battle of the sexes is especially enjoyable. All the women in this story are strong, and a lot of fun is poked at the male characters for underestimating them. (At the same time, some of this struck me as a bit disingenuous. I guess when you’ve focused your reading on the mystery queens, you eye the view of a “strong female” by their male counterparts with a bit of skepticism.) I look forward to reading more of Punshon’s books, but I do hope some of them will provide me with a greater level of perplexity!
Next up: another first time for me with a forgotten GAD writer!