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Authors: E.R. Punshon

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E.R. PUNSHON
Information Received

In his London townhouse, city magnate Sir Christopher Clarke is found lying murdered. At the other end of the house his safe hangs open and rifled, and earlier in the day he had visited his solicitors in order to make a drastic change in his will. Later it is discovered that there has been fraud connected with the dead man, and this is but one of the many complications with which Superintendent Mitchell is faced. Fortunately he has the assistance of young Constable Owen, a talented young Oxford graduate who, finding all other careers closed to him by the ‘economic blizzard' of the early thirties, has joined the London Police force.

Information Received
is the first of E.R. Punshon's acclaimed Bobby Owen mysteries, first published in 1933 and the start of a series which eventually spanned thirty-five novels.

Introduction

When E.R. Punshon (1874-1956) launched his Bobby Owen mystery series in 1933 with the publication of
Information Received
, his new detective novel got from Dorothy L. Sayers, already one of England's most renowned mystery writers, the kind of book review most novelists have only ever dreamed of getting. Excerpts from the Sayers review would emblazon the dust jackets of Punshon mysteries for the next twenty-three years, until Punshon's death in 1956, one year before Sayers's own passing. 

“What is distinction,” Sayers asked rhetorically in her
Sunday Times
crime fiction column review of
Information Received
, before concluding that distinction's name was Punshon. Sayers made clear that what she referred to here was not plotting distinction but literary distinction. It was literary distinction, she declared, that was “missed by scores of competent mystery writers who can construct impeccable plots. The few who achieve it step—plot or no plot—unquestioned into the first rank.”  Sayers asserted that Punshon's tales possessed qualities more important than those which arose from “the mere mechanics of puzzle-making,” namely “that elusive something which makes them count as literature” and “that enhanced and glorified reality which is the highest art.” The current Punshon mystery,
Information Received
, was, in Sayers's view, “a real book, not assembled by a journeyman, but written, as a book ought to be, by a man who is a writer first and foremost.” 

Dorothy L. Sayers's review of E.R. Punshon's
Information Received
was a career-making moment for the lesser-known mystery writer, an epochal event in the life of a man who in 1933 was nearly sixty years old and had been publishing novels since the year of Queen Victoria's death. Punshon's novel
Earth's Great Lord
, a romance of the Australian outback, had appeared in 1901, to be followed in 1905 by
Constance West
, a romance of the Canadian wilderness. After publishing a third mainstream novel,
Rhoda in Between
(1907), Punshon gave an early hint of his penchant for mystery-mongering, producing a couple of crime tales,
The Mystery of Lady Isobel
(1907) and
The Spin of the Coin
(1908), both more notable for sensational melodrama than sober detection. “Thrill succeeds thrill,” observed
The Bookman
of
The Mystery of Lady Isobel
, while the
Morning Leader
confidently declared: “Lovers of sensation will rejoice over
The Spin of the Coin
.”  

Of Punshon's next dozen novels, at least four—
Hidden Lives
(1913),
The Solitary House
(1918),
The Woman's Footprint
(1919) and
The Bittermeads Mystery
(1922)—can be characterized as crime novels, though to each still clings the heady aroma of Edwardian melodrama. Only in 1929 did Punshon make his bid as an author of more firmly puzzle-focused, fair play detective fiction in the modern, Jazz Age manner, with his Inspector Carter and Sergeant Bell mystery series, which ran through five novels into 1932. Although Dorothy L. Sayers had praised the Carter-Bell series as well, the plaudits she lavished on
Information Received
, Punshon's first Bobby Owen detective novel, must have been, for both Punshon himself and his publisher, Ernest Benn, an unexpected blessing. 

Why was Sayers so powerfully struck by
Information Received
? Certainly at the time Sayers reviewed the novel she had become, through her reviews in the
Sunday Times
and other critical writings, perhaps the most vocal British exponent of transforming the traditional puzzle-oriented detective story into more of a novel of manners with crime, a process which she believed would lead the genre out of what she deemed its body-in-the-library creative dead-end. She saw in Punshon's books, particularly
Information Received
, a mystery writer who could really write, someone interested in creating compelling stories of crime as it impacts psychologically credible people rather than merely fabricating intricate puzzles involving clichéd, cardboard characters. 

Information Received
introduces a new series character, a handsome, modest young policeman named Bobby Owen, who features in all thirty-five mystery novels Punshon published under his own name between 1933 and his death in 1956 (he also published two mystery novels under a pseudonym, Robertson Halket, that do not feature Owen). Eventually attaining the rank of Commander, Bobby, as Punshon calls him, starts as a lowly constable in
Information Received
. An Oxford graduate (pass degree only), Bobby turned to the Metropolitan Police Service after finding before him “a world with but scanty openings to offer to young University graduates with only pass degrees.”  At the start of
Information Received
, Bobby has served on the force for three years, during which “his most exciting experiences had been escorting old ladies across the road and satisfying the insatiable thirst of children for the right time.” Yet things are about to change, most drastically. 

Bobby is on the scene shortly after financier Sir Christopher Clarke is found in his billiard room, fatally felled by a couple of gunshot wounds to the chest. (“Close by lay a revolver, and an acrid smell of powder still lingered in the room. From two round, burnt holes in the dead man's chest bubbles of blood were oozing with a slow and dreadful regularity.”) Soon on the scene as well is Superintendent Mitchell of the Criminal Investigation Department, a big, bluff, garrulous man who serves as Bobby's mentor and the lead investigator in the early novels in the series. Given to quirky pronouncements (“A good detective never forgets his sandwiches…. That's the first law of all sound detective work—don't forget the sandwiches. We may have to wait here all day.”), Mitchell nevertheless has a wise head on his shoulders. 

Mitchell's wise head is needed in the Sir Christopher Clarke murder case, where a goodly number of people seem to have had reasons for wanting the dead man permanently out of the picture. Although, to be sure,
Information Received
has a proto-Cluedo-style opening, with a rich man found murdered with a revolver in the billiard room, the ending is anything but a standard Golden Age device, drawing as it does on an older, richer literary source and Punshon's “own keen insight into the characters of those under pressure,” as mystery scholar Nick Fuller has put it. As Dorothy L. Sayers wrote over eighty years ago, with
Information Received
E.R. Punshon crafted a detective novel of distinction—and even better ones were yet to come from the new mystery master's hands.

Curtis Evans

CHAPTER 1
TWO THEATRE TICKETS

Since that formidable personage, Sir Christopher Clarke, square built, square jawed, iron of fist and will, with fierce little eyes that gleamed from under bushy brows as though they sought whom they might devour next, was by far the most important and influential client of Messrs Marsden, Carsley, and Marsden, Lincoln's Inn, the well-known and long-established firm of solicitors, it is perhaps no matter for surprise that a certain nervousness, or even more than that, was apparent in the manner of the senior partner of the firm as he rose to greet him.

But Sir Christopher was well used to seeing people nervous and uncomfortable in his presence. Was he not the strong, successful man, the man who knew what he wanted and saw that he got it; were not respect, deference, consideration, even fear, his rightful due? And if it was now even more than fear that peeped from the dark, sharp eyes of Basil Marsden, Sir Christopher took that more as a compliment than anything else. After all, is it not natural to fear the strong, and was he not strong with the strength of a quarter of a million in cash and a credit as high as that of any man in the City of London? Why, but for the recent slump he would have been a millionaire by now, and even the slump had affected him as little as any man.

So if he noticed the terror that seemed to show in the dark, sharp eyes, if he noticed a certain trembling in the white, well-cared-for hands that moved about the papers on the lawyer's desk, he took no notice. He said:

‘About the Belfort Trust?'

‘I have the papers here,' answered Mr Marsden. ‘The accounts show a total of a little over £20,000. A large sum,' he smiled, ‘and as in these days of smash and grab raids, one never knows, I asked Carsley to go himself to the Safe Deposit to fetch it, and take two of the clerks with him, just so as to be on the safe side. It's nearly all in bearer bonds, you remember. Better safe than sorry is a good motto. I think Carsley was almost disappointed nothing happened.'

‘Carsley is a partner now, isn't he?' Sir Christopher asked.

A little surprised at the question, Mr Marsden nodded.

‘Now he's passed his examinations,' he said, a trifle maliciously. ‘He didn't find it too easy, I'm afraid.'

Sir Christopher made no comment but the tone in which this was said had not escaped his notice. It was perhaps not unnatural that Basil Marsden, who had had sole control of the firm for a good many years, was not altogether pleased at having to admit as a partner on equal terms young Peter Carsley, the son of the original Carsley. But as partner he had had to be admitted, or else bought out at a price it would not have been convenient to pay. So installed in a partner's room young Peter Carsley sat, though as yet very insecurely in the saddle and with hardly more knowledge of the business than any junior clerk – and indeed as a very junior clerk Marsden seemed more than half inclined to treat him.

Now Marsden got up and opening the door called into an adjoining room:

‘Peter, bring me the Belfort Trust papers, will you? Securities and all. They're in the safe, you know. Dickson has my key.'

Closing the door, he came back to his seat.

‘Carsley won't be a minute,' he said. ‘May I ask, is it the intention to close the Trust?'

‘You don't want that, eh?' chuckled Sir Christopher. ‘Pretty profitable bit of business, eh?'

Marsden laughed, too.

‘Well, we've had it a long time,' he said. ‘I suppose old Mr Belfort ...?'

‘Fussing a bit,' admitted Sir Christopher. ‘He wants to see all papers, bonds, securities, everything himself. Natural, in a way, as he is taking over now his brother's died. I shall tell him if he can find another trustee to act in my place, I shall be grateful. I have quite enough on my hands, as it is, and the hundred a year I get as trustee doesn't pay me for my time.”

Mr Marsden gave an acquiescent murmur though, as, to his certain knowledge, Sir Christopher had never given to the Trust more time than was required for the signing of an occasional paper now and again, he was inclined to think Sir Christopher earned his hundred easily enough. Still, it was true this old Mr Belfort, suddenly imported into the affair through the death of another trustee, seemed inclined to be officious. But then again Sir Christopher wouldn't mind that, provided Mr Belfort confined his officiousness to worrying not his fellow trustee but the Trust's solicitor. Probably Sir Christopher would not care if this fussy old man wanted to do everything himself, instead of leaving everything to the others, as his recently deceased brother had been content to do.

There was a pause while they still waited for Peter Carsley. Sir Christopher, little used to waiting, looked frowningly at the door, and Mr Marsden suddenly remembered.

‘Oh, Sir Christopher,' he said, ‘a boy left your theatre tickets this morning – here they are.'

‘Theatre tickets?' repeated Sir Christopher. ‘What theatre tickets?'

‘From the Regency,' explained Mr Marsden, producing an envelope with the imprint of that well-known theatre and marked ‘Two stalls'. He added: ‘I went with a friend the other night. I had no idea Shakespeare was so interesting. I didn't find it at all boring, not at all.'

He paused, for Sir Christopher was looking in a puzzled way at the envelope the lawyer had handed him.

‘Some mistake,' he said. ‘I've not booked any seats anywhere. Who left it here?'

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