Diabolic Candelabra is surely one of the oddest titles of a Golden Age novel written by a leading author. This book was first published in 1941, and was the work of E.R. Punshon, a pillar of the Detection Club and one of Dorothy L. Sayers' favourite detective novelists. It certainly fair to call it a Forgotten Book, but I'm pleased to say that Ramble House (a truly commendable small press) have made affordable copies available again, while one or two glowing reviews of the book have appeared on the internet in recent times, with a particularly detailed and positive review from John Norris on his excellent blog Pretty Sinister Books.
This is another case for Punshon's policeman Bobby Owen, who is now an inspector, married to Olive, and working in the countryside rather than London, where he began his career in Information Received. As usual with Punshon, the storyline is discursive, and the mystery has a number of ingredients, several of them unusual. Punshon's characteristic wit is much in evidence, and I thought I detected a sly and subtle dig at Anthony Berkeley.
The story is set in the early days of the Second World War, and Punshon gives an interesting idea of the extent to which war did and did not affect rural England - despite all the anxiety, people at home still got on with their lives. The mystery of an appealing and unfamiliar flavouring for chocolate kick-starts the book - an odd beginning, perhaps, but somehow typical of Punshon's off-beat approach. The plot thickens rapidly, and various story-lines enmesh a strange hermit who lives in hovel in a wood, a strange young girl, an unpleasant doctor, one or two odd tradesman, and an aristocratic family whose heirlooks may or may not include works by El Greco and some valuable candle-sticks.
When murder is done, there are no fewer than twelve suspects, although I managed to spot the villain at a fairly early stage, partly because Punshon's over-elaborate story construction perhaps yields more clues than he intended. I always have mixed feelings about his books, because they invariably contain pleasing elements, and equally often seem (to me, but not to good judges including Sayers) rather self-indulgent. But he contrives a dramatic finale and one or two genuinely memorable passages. An interesting writer, certainly, who definitely does not deserve to be forgotten. If you haven't sampled him before, Diabolic Candelabra is not a bad place to start.