E. R. Punshon, is an author I have been keen to read this year, an author brought out of obscurity by the Dean Street Press. Although my own particular copy of Helen Passes By (1947) is in fact a 1949 edition, which I picked up in Oxfam and could well be my charity shop find of the year.
Following a road safety meeting, Deputy Chief Constable Bobby Owens (Punshon’s serial sleuth) bumps into an old disreputable acquaintance, Alexander Wayling, who successfully manages to elicit 5 shillings from Bobby. Bobby returns home to discover that Wayling has also wrangled money from many other people in the area including his own wife, Olive (who has an unfortunate habit of saying “Oh Bobby” a lot). This introductory interlude at the beginning of the story apart from being quite humorous also introduces the reader to the murder case of the novel, that of Itter Bains, who is found shot in the woods. Bobby is called into the case and made in to an Assistant Commissioner, because due to the bad handling of the press by Deputy Chief Constable Seers (perhaps an ironic surname) there is a rumour going around that Seers is protecting the murderer because he is an aristocrat. The fact this aristocrat was in the area at the time and also had a gun on him (which he apparently left alone for a time), adds weight to such suggestions. It is Bobby’s job to clear up the case to prevent Government scandal.
Solving the case won’t be easy for Bobby as Seers’ investigation leaves a lot to be desired, focusing on only one hypothesis and includes only vague, unchecked information from the more socially respectable suspects/witnesses. One such person is Helen, the daughter of Lord Adour of Adour and Avon (the man who is suspected of having killed Itter). Like her namesake Helen of Troy, this Helen has a way of making men fall instantly in love with her, whilst also keeping them and any publicity at arms length. Men as far ranged as Itter and Seers have fallen under her spell. Wing Commander Winstanley (a neighbour of Lord Adour) is also another such man and is even said to have got into a fight over her with Itter. Another angle of the case concerns Itter’s brother and cousin, Mauley and Prescott who he was in a manufacturing and engineering business with. In a post war England, the business had lost a lot of money through the expiration of war contracts, yet Itter continued to spend vast sums of money on his experiments. Other factors include a suspiciously well-informed reporter on the Seashire Herald, Harry Haile, a motor launch which conveniently disappears, a mysterious Frenchman who appears and then vanishes, the conspicuous presence of Wayling and a midnight assault in the woods. Whilst battling with unhelpful and resistant suspects, it is a race against time for Bobby and the local police force before the killer strikes again…
An interesting novelty in this story is that occasionally interspersed between the chapters are extracts from letters from Bobby to Olive. Such typography is something I usually enjoy. In this case these extracts are a vehicle through which Punshon can reveal how Bobby is perceiving the case:
‘I don’t like it, Olive. I don’t like it at all. No good, sound, plain evidence, not so much as the smell of a fingerprint. Nothing but psychology and an atmosphere of doubt, menace, and suspicion.’
However, I found these extracts a little disappointing as they mostly just repeated and summed up the information which had been found in the previous chapters, although the final letter extract does help towards clarifying the solution to the mystery, as the killer’s confession requires some elucidation. Again though some of the extracts are a little too long and did come across as padding at some points. I think what would have improved the letters would have been if they included more personal comments, which is ironic as personal information and details about Bobby and Olive, are consciously kept hidden:
‘The rest of the letter is of purely private interest.’
‘The remainder of this letter is of a private nature.’
‘The letter concludes on a more personal note.’
I did enjoy reading about Bobby’s investigation though and he has similarities with Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn and Alan Melville’s Mr Wilson. He does not look like your typical policeman, as the other characters find out:
‘All this was not quite what he had expected – something more like Hawkseye the detective, of happy childhood memories, was what he had looked for. Not a man who could spot a Bonnington at a glance and showed no sign of being overawed by the other’s title and social position.’
Conversely, the title’s key figure, Helen, was a character I warmed to less. It does not help that during the entire novel, despite being at the centre of the case and almost being an orb which is and expects to be revolved around, she is never seen once by Bobby or the reader, so our judgement of her has to be based on other people’s opinions. However this is not an easy thing to do when every male character is invariably love struck by her and even women such as her cousin Jane are wholly devoted to her. Even such a devotee though admits that Helen’s beauty is other worldly and queen-like, meaning that the reason Helen never encourages male admiration is because she is in love with her own looks, going on moonlit walks to admire them. Not a trait you can particularly warm to.
An odd element which is briefly thrown into the mix and then vanishes without a trace is that a local old people’s home, run by Mrs Macks, where some of its residents die awfully quickly and young girls at infrequent intervals stay for a short period of time before going away again. The themes alluded to of course are euthanasia and abortion, which were both illegal at the time, of the novel being written. Yet, many of the characters seem indifferent to the goings on at the home and even Bobby, although not encouraging the activities, does not attempt to prosecute the woman in charge, who freely admits what she is doing. This part of the tale does seem to be incorporated rather bluntly into the novel as whole and I’m not sure it entirely works. I think such themes could be in themselves structure an entire detective novel.
Rating: 3/5 (I would definitely read another of Punshon’s novels, but I think for me this was not a first class mystery. Parts were a little dull, such as the letter extracts and I feel I have read superior examples from that particular time period. This of course does mean I am going against the opinion of Dorothy L Sayers who is quoted on my copy’s dust jacket as thinking highly of Punshon:
‘What is distinction? asks Dorothy L. Sayers: The few who achieve it step unquestioned into the first rank. We recognise it in Sherlock Holmes, in Trent’s Last Case, in the Father Brown stories and in the works of Mr E. R. Punshon we salute it every time.’