Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Shady Doings: The Dusky Hour (1937), by E. R. Punshon

It was dusk, the dusky hour that lingers in the English countryside before the closing in of night....

Murder was certainly a dreadful thing, but also, in a way, impersonal.  It was like a war in Spain, a famine in China, a revolution in Mexico or Brazil, tragic, deplorable, but also comfortably remote....[Now] Mr. Moffatt was beginning to feel vaguely uncomfortable. Murder seemed somehow to be creeping near--too near.  No longer was it merely a paragraph in the paper, something fresh to chat about, an occasion for a comfortable shiver over a comfortable glass of wine.

                                                              --The Dusky Hour (1937), by E. R. Punshon

E. R. Punshon's The Dusky Hour was not well-received by that Bible of detective fiction orthodoxy, Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Talyor's A Catalogue of Crime (1971). The COC even condemned the "adolescent name" of Punshon's sleuth, Sergeant Bobby Owen. Apparently, in the view of the COC, sleuths are not to be allowed diminutives (even one that calls to mind actual British slang for a cop).

On the other hand, Punshon was a great favorite of both Dorothy L. Sayers and of Sayers' successor as Sunday Times crime fiction reviewer, her fellow Detection Club member Milward Kennedy. Sayers's rave review of Punshon's debut Bobby Owen mystery in 1933 gave a great lift-off to the Bobby Owen series, while Kennedy declared specifically of The Dusky Hour, "I do not think that Mr. Punshon, another front-rank man, has ever done better work than this."

Concerning this divergence of opinion I side with Sayers and Kennedy.  Whence the divergence between these two pairs of discerning critics?  Likely it arose from their differing aesthetic views. Barzun and Taylor, I suspect, would have preferred a sparer narrative, along the lines of Freeman Wills Crofts or Agatha Christie.  The Dusky Hour is a fairly long book for the period, and Punshon's narrative style is leisurely, his sentences sometimes undisciplined.

Sayers and Kennedy, however, in the 1930s embraced the movement to merge the detective novel with the mainstream, literary novel and they saw Punshon as an important soldier in this movement, one to be celebrated, not castigated, for his narrative style. (Punshon, incidentally, became a Detection Club member in 1933, three years after the formation of the organization; Sayers and Kennedy were founding members.)

Certainly Kennedy commended the novel's plot, which concerns the discovery of a dead body in a car dumped in a Berkshire chalk pit (the novel preceded England's notorious real-life chalk pit murder by nine years) and the net of suspicion that is drawn around the inhabitants of three nearby country homes, including Sevens, the hideous "sham and inappropriate" Victorian Gothic abode of the local squire, Mr, Moffatt, and his young adult children, Ena and Noll. Yet Kennedy also praised the narrative of The Dusky Hour, pronouncing that it was "irreproachable in style" and "spiced by the author's wide reading and acute observation."

Again, I tend to concur with Milward Kennedy. The plot of The Dusky Hour is pleasingly complex, requiring a final chapter of sixteen pages for elucidation.  I greatly enjoyed seeing how Bobby--perhaps I should call him Robert to please the COC--fit all the pieces together. But there also are nicely individuated characters and interesting and unexpected asides that I believe enhance the tale.

For example, Punshon on several occasions amusingly mocks the agrarian conservatism of Mr. Moffatt, as in this passage, which makes mention of a certain English newspaper with a left-leaning, working-class readership:

Mr. Moffatt nodded.  He knew Norris well enough, the constable stationed at the village, a civil, intelligent fellow, though less active against poaching than one could have wished, and reported, though one hoped untruly, to have been seen reading the Daily Herald--a bad sign.

Through Bobby Owen the author also expresses doubt about the efficacy of capital punishment, and indicates that English police actually did need to concern themselves with getting search warrants--surely news to Crofts' Inspector Joseph French, who, with his array of bent wires and skeleton keys, flouts English law in Crofts' detective novels with cheerful abandon.  In The Dusky Hour I was positively thrilled when a character--a chauffeur no less--evicted the police from his abode after they admitted they didn't have a warrant.

On that I say three cheers for the people!  But three cheers also for Mr. Punshon and his Bobby Owen--a likable, young British cop who manages to crack a most complicated case, adolescent name or not.

The Dusky Hour, the ninth E. R. Punshon Bobby Owen detective novel, will be reprinted by Dean Street Press later this year, in both paperback and eBook versions, along with #'s 6, 7, 8 and 10.  The first five Bobby Owen mysteries will be available, on and and in both paperback and electronic versions, in June.


  1. I just got hold of the 1955 Penguin edition of Information Received. It will be my first taste of Punshon. If you and Dorothy L. Sayers like him, then he's got to be good!

    1. Hi Bev, my favorite of the first five Bobby Owen Punshons are Crossword Mystery, Mystery Villa and Death of a Beauty Queen,.#'s 3, 4, and 5 respectively, but Sayers really did give a great review to the debut novel, Information Received, with the kind of review authors of new series dream of getting. There's more about all this in the Dean Street Editions, in the introductions I wrote for the series. Nick Fuller was also very favorable to Information Received. By the way, people should be careful if they read Fuller's GAD reviews about Punshon, because some have major spoilers.

    2. Sorry about that! The GAD Wiki doesn't (or didn't) have a spoiler function.

      Avoid reading my reviews of "The Dusky Hour" (good) and "The Dark Garden" (didn't).

    3. And by "didn't", I mean of course "average".

    4. Hi, Nick, nice to hear from you--yes, there's a rather big spoiler in your GAD review for The Dusky Hour!

      In the introduction to Information Received, I quoted you, by the way. No need to let Sayers get all the credit! ;)

  2. "English police actually did need to concern themselves with getting search warrants--surely news to Crofts' Inspector Joseph French"

    Joe Orton's Inspector Truscott, in the play Loot, solves the problem by announcing he is from the Water Board, which didn't need warrants.

  3. "...his sentences sometimes undisciplined." That's an understatement! All those dashes instead of periods. Grrrr...

    I read DIABOLIC CANDELABRA and was impressed with his imaginative and fantastical touches and his talent in creating a sinister atmosphere. My second venture into Punshon, DEATH COMES TO CAMBERS (#6 in the series), was less than thrilling. I thought it pretty routine but mostly was bothered by his tendency towards logorrhea and that page length paragraph habit of his. Way too much Q&A in that one for my tastes and repetitive interrogation at that.

    1. For equal time, Milward Kennedy wrote in the Sunday Times of Death Comes to Cambers that "Mr. Punshon would find it hard to write a bad detective story; his latest is tantalisingly good." Also Nick Fuller gives that title five stars over at GAD (always watch out for spoilers over at GAD). I like it too, but I agree that not everyone has loved Punshon's narrative style. I think it was an obstacle to his getting all his books reprinted in the US.

      In some ways I'm reminded of Gladys Mitchell,who also enjoyed mixed success in the US, although I think Punshon's plots are not so wild as Mitchells and usually get tied together sufficiently at the end. Perhaps that is why Nick likes Punshon: he is attracted to imaginative writers, like Mitchell, Carr, Bailey and Punshon.

    2. I do like it when somebody mentions Milward Kennedy. He's a personal favourite. Death in a Deck-Chair is in my list of all time greats. Though my list is probably near to two hundred titles.I just can't help myself.

    3. I liked Deck Chair too, quite a bit, and several others by MK.