Documentary Evidence seems to be one of the rarest of all Golden Age novels. Its author is Robertson Halkett - a pseudonym used twice by the prolific E.R. Punshon. But although Punshon's books aren't always hard to find, his Halkett novels are rare. Where Every Prospect Pleases, which I have written about before, is elusive enough, but not even the British Library has a copy of Documentary Evidence. Until recently, Tony Medawar was the only person I knew who had read it. Find a signed copy in a nice dustjacket, and you'll find yourself something really valuable. To say that it qualifies as a Forgotten Book is an under-statement!
But the revival of interest in Golden Age mysteries has changed the picture, and earlier this year, Ramble House published a nice new edition of the book, with an intro by Gavin O'Keefe. Gavin points out that this book appeared at much the same time as the first of the crime dossiers by Dennis Wheatley and Joe Links, and a couple of similarly structured books by Harry Stephen Keeler, once one of my father's favourites, and now extensively republished by Ramble House.
This story, as the title suggests, is told through a series of documents - letters, telegrams and so on - and I suspect that Punshon was paying homage to Dorothy L. Sayers, whose The Documents in the Case appeared six years earlier. Sayers' book is under-rated, in my opinion. It's no mean feat to write an intriguing and entertaining mystery in this way. What is especially unusual about Punshon's book is that it isn't a detective story but rather a thriller, as was the other Halkett novel.
So what did I make of the book, after years spent searching for it? Well, I'm delighted that Ramble House have satisfied my curiosity about it, but I can rather understand why Punshon abandoned the Halkett name afterwards, and concentrated on more conventional work. The story is about robbery and kidnapping, subjects which possibly don't lend themselves to the "document" format as well as a murder mystery, and for me, the best bits of the book are the jokes. There's an especially witty passage about the unlikely things that happen in real life. Not a masterpiece then, but an interesting structural experiment.