Friday, 20 September 2013

Forgotten Book - Death Comes to Cambers

I've started to warm to the writing of E.R. Punshon, one of those Golden Age writers who enjoyed plenty of success and critical acclaim in his day, but has subsequently vanished from sight. He is rarely discussed in reference books about the genre, yet Dorothy L. Sayers was a big fan of his work.. My Forgotten Book for today is one of the early entries in his long series about Bobby Owen (the well-born Bobby is still a youthful sergeant in this book), Death Comes to Cambers.

This is a country house mystery which opens with the mysterious disappearance from her home of Lady Cambers. One of her guests at the time was - surprise, surprise! - Bobby himself. His grandmother, Lady Hirlpool, had introduced him to Lady Cambers, who was afraid of burglars. Her ladyship is soon found dead, and her jewellery is missing.

There is no shortage of suspects. In fact, the book does rather become bogged down in a seemingly endless series of interviews with the suspicious characters abounding in the vicinity - they include a fanatical cleric, an arrogant archaeologist, a sexy housemaid, a dodgy butler, and the victim's estranged husband, plus quite a few others. There are some amusing and well-written scenes. Punshon did have a sharp sense of humour and a taste for satire. But his verbosity does become a drag before the end of the book.

There are two newspaper ciphers, an ingenious alibi and plenty of opportunities for Bobby to show his sleuthing prowess. On the whole, though, I felt this a competent piece of work, but nothing more. A comparison with the light and breezy novels Agatha Christie was writing at the same time is instructive. Punshon's ideas about society and his prose style were probably quite impressive in their day, but they haven't stood the test of time as well as Christie's crisp brush strokes. She was a much more economical writer than Punshon, and in Golden Age fiction, economy of style is almost always a Good Thing..

7 comments:

John said...

That crazy machine the murderer built in order to create the ingenious alibi was probably the best part of the book. It got a gasp and laugh out of me. The book is overly long and the constant revisting of characters already interviewed became very frustratting. It didn't move forward it kept feelign like two steps forward, three steps backward as I got deeper into the book. I reveiwed DEATH COMES TO CAMBERS on my blog earlier this year and talked about most of what you mention here.

However, for those interested in Punshon's best work I heartily recommend DIABOLIC CANDELABRA. It was just reprinted by Ramble House this year and is available for purchase either at their webiste or amazon.com. It's far superior, stunningly original, creepy and thrilling, and overall an extremely entertaining mystery novel.

BVLawson said...

In doing a little research on Punshon, I noted he reviewed many of Agatha Christie's novels for The Guardian but apparently, there was little cross-pollination between their two writing styles. He did reference Christie's "inexhaustible ingenuity." I think it was a compliment.

Martin Edwards said...

John, the title alone makes me want to read Diabolic Candelabra, but your praise for the book iseven more encouraging.

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, Bonnie, I think he was quite a prolific reviewer, but I know frustratingly little about him. Certainly the density of his style is very different from Agatha's.

Kelly Robinson said...

A crazy machine? That DOES sound interesting.

Christine said...

I agree, Diabolic Candelabra is a wonderful title, and the London Library has it (along with lots of other Punshon novels) so I shall be giving it a try.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

One of the reasons I like detective stories is that they have such a wide range of characters, and a wide range of current types. Who are the 21st century types? The suspects are: Mr Placebo, the homeopathic vet; Mystic Marian, the faerie shop proprietor; Horace the Hipster; Freda the farmer's market stallholder; Eric the estate agent; Poppy the property developer; Alaric the atheist vicar etc etc etc etc...