Source: Review Copy
Having only read one book by Punshon, I was interested in giving him another go, hoping that this book would be better than Helen Passes By (1947). As this one is earlier in the series, Bobby Owen is only a Detective-Sergeant and has only recently become engaged to Olive Farrar. It is this engagement which sees Bobby visiting Olive whilst she stays with an old friend, Miss Kayne at Wynton Lodge, who has inherited the famous Kayne library, stocked full of rare books. Though even from his first encounter with Miss Kayne, she is a malevolent and confounding person, conveying a sense of hatred against the library and also casually dropping into conversation that she ‘committed… the perfect murder’ once. Miss Kayne is owner for life of the library but it is run and controlled by Mr Broast. There are also two trustees, Miss Kayne’s father’s nephew, Nat Kayne and also the bibliophile Sir William Winders. It is their job to trust that the library is not mal-administered. However, it is well known that Nat is keen for the library to be sold.
It is also in these early stages of the novel that we get snapshots of Bobby and Olive’s fledgling relationship. It contains wryly amusing moments where Bobby is considering selling his newly paid for motorbike in order to buy furniture for his future home. Olive is an ambiguous character in that she espouses quite modern views on women:
‘All very well to talk about sex equality, but the eternities remained and what a woman gave, she gave, and could never have again. But what a man took, he took and could go on taking, so where was your equality?’
But ultimately she cannot free herself from traditional attitudes:
‘And then she saw Bobby looking at her and at that no thought was left in her any more only a great wish that she had more to give and ever more.’
Definitely a sick bucket moment… Additionally although there are other moments where Olive is feistier such as when she dismisses the concept of sex starved women, in the end I don’t think her independence or resistance is sustainable, as especially in Helen Passes By, she is fairly placid and domesticated. This probably suits Bobby quite nicely as in this story whenever Olive begins to talk seriously he undermines it by focusing on her external appearance and ways of getting opportunities to canoodle with her.
Further small curious incidents follow including an unsigned copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a secret stash of love letters and a mysterious figure prowling the grounds. However, drama levels rapidly rise when an American tourist called Bertram A. Virtue informs the police there is a dead body in the Kayne library. Yet when Bobby arrives at the scene, there is nothing there. This doesn’t stop Bertram from trying to demand the library is searched, believing that all you need to do for a policeman is:
‘give him a brick… and he’ll build a row of houses. Well I’ve shown you a brick, build your house from it, get at the truth from it.’
More confusion enters the picture when a call comes through saying Nat Kayne has been found shot in a nearby wood…
The title of this book comes from a 17th century epigraph by Francis Quarles: ‘Death has no advantage, but when it comes a stranger.’ And strangers feature a lot in this novel with both Bertram and another American visitor being particularly reticent about the purpose of their visit and even in one case their real name, though this latter American, Mr Adams is an interesting character whose loquaciousness is mildly comical and his aversion to violence due to experiences in WW1 quite intriguing. Moreover, the concept of strangers also leads to a man in a photograph and even the characters Bobby is sufficiently knowledgeable on, have sides which push them beyond recognition.
However, the case becomes increasingly complex with further deaths and even cold cases, including the disappearance of a man 10 years ago becoming involved. It is not new that most of the characters are withholding information, with Miss Kayne becoming positively sphinx-like and making ominous predictions of how everything will end. Moreover, at the back of it all Bobby has the suspicion that it is not a coincidence that these events began taking place when he arrived… The climax of this story is dramatic and action filled (though in my opinion entirely preventable), proving that past events cast long shadows…
I do think this story is better than Helen Passes By and definitely has a stronger mystery at the heart of it. However, I feel that what mostly lets this story down is the writing style, which I found a little dense at points. Furthermore, the pace of the narrative was too slow at times and was padded out with long winded theorising on Bobby’s part, a detective which I didn’t really get on with, finding him a bit self-centred when he continually emphasises how his presence set off the crimes. Additionally the solution to the case was quite a long one, with a back story, which is fine but I think a crucial element of it is explained too vaguely and thinly to make the solution fully comprehensible. But to end on a high note, the introduction and afterword to this edition, written by Curtis Evans is definitely worth a read and the afterword in particular reveals not only the origin of the title but also shows how the story was based on real life events and people.
Rating: 3.25/ 5