Authors: E.R. Punshon
Perhaps the victim had not been unconscious but had known her fate, had sent upwards from the black pit a cry that none but murderers had heard.
Bobby takes the rare opportunity for a holiday â albeit a working one. Prompted by his fiancÃ©e Olive, he sets off to France to find out what happened to Miss Polthwaite's diamonds â and why her dead body was discovered at the bottom of a well. The local police have a ready-made suspect, it appears, but Bobby soon forms theories of his own regarding what happened to the unfortunate spinster.
, originally published in 1939, is the thirteenth novel in the Bobby Owen mystery series. This new edition features an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.
“What is distinction? The few who achieve it step â plot or no plot â unquestioned into the first rankâ¦ in the works of Mr. E.R. Punshon we salute it every time.”
Dorothy L. Sayers
During the Golden Age of detective fiction, the country of France proved a popular literary destination for British mystery writers making occasional excursions to foreign crimes. At the dawn of the Golden Age, Freeman Wills Crofts set much of his landmark debut detective novel,
(1920), in France, while Agatha Christie's third published mystery,
The Murder on the Links
(1923), sees Christie's series sleuth Hercule Poirot (Belgian, not French!) competing with the Paris SÃ»retÃ© to solve a baffling slaying on a French golf course. According to Christie biographer Laura Thompson, the Queen of Crime based
The Murder on the Links
on an actual crime in France. E.R. Punshon likewise drew on real-life criminal inspiration from across the English Channel in
(1939), his thirteenth Bobby Owen mystery, which is set in the rugged Auvergne region of south central France and has a plot that the author partially based on a then notorious unsolved crime, the murder a decade earlier of Englishwoman Olive Branson at the scenic mountain village of Les Baux-des-Provence.
On 4 May 1929, Edith May Olive Branson (1884-1929), an artist and cousin of English High Court judge Sir George Arthur Harwin Branson (future grandfather of English businessman Richard Branson), was discovered dead in a cistern on the grounds of her villa. She had been slain by a single bullet to the forehead that was fired, neighbors believed, around nine oâclock on the previous evening. Initially local police theorized that Branson had committed suicide, but in England her family balked at this claim. Within a few days, however, Chief Inspector Alexandre Guibal of the Marseilles police judiciaire had taken charge of the case; and Guibal, a recipient of the O.B.E. (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) who had worked for British intelligence during the Great War, announced that the family's darkest fears were correct: Branson's mysterious death was indeed a case of foul play. Guibal had discovered bloodstains within Branson's villa and he surmised from this, reasonably enough, that the artist “could not have shot herself and then walked to a tank 20 yards away in stockinged feet and a nightdress.”
Both Branson's gardener and his brother-in-law, Francois Pinet, manager of the local HÃ´tel de Monte Carlo, were arrested and subjected to what newspapers referred to as a “gruelling third degree interrogation,” after which the gardener was released, but Pinet was committed to trial. Although Pinet, 25, was two decades younger than the 44-year-old Branson, police theorized that the “handsome athletic young man” had been the artist's lover and that he slew her after she had promised to bequeath to him the HÃ´tel de Monte Carlo, which she had purchased from Pinet's parents. (Despite this assurance, Branson later made a will leaving her entire estate to a cousin in England.) In an echo of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” Chief Inspector Guibal noted that Branson had owned four large watchdogs, not one of which had barked on the night the artist was slain, indicating that the murderer was someone familiar to them. Guibal also established that, contrary to Pinet's claims, he and Branson had stayed together in several Marseilles hotels, registering under assumed names.
The wealth and social prominence of the victim, coupled with the titillating idea of a well-bred, middle-aged Englishwoman carrying on a sexual affair with a much younger French hotel manager, made Francois Pinet's murder trial a press sensation, with accounts of the affair appearing in newspapers around the world, in France, England, Australia, the United States and presumably other countries as well. Emphasis was laid upon Olive Branson's “eccentricities,” which seemed mostly to boil down to her inclination to live independently and her active interest in attractive members of the opposite sex. (“[N]o girl was ever easier for a man to meet,” one newspaper feature article observed snidely of Branson.) When Pinet's case came to trial nine months later, the press seems to have taken the certainty of his conviction as a matter of course, but, in a shocking turn of events, the young manâwho, it was reported, “looked almost a dandy in the dock,” with his hair oiled and his clothes nicely pressedâwas acquitted.
Counsel for the defense maintained to the end of the case that Olive Branson had done away with herself. After Pinet's stunning acquittal the mystery around Branson's death remained officially unsolved a decade later, when E.R. Punshon published
. (Indeed, it remains unsolved today.) One can surmise how the case might have proved irresistibly tantalizing to the mystery author, who had written about outrÃ© murder in France three years previously, in an essay on the infamous serial killer Henri DÃ©sirÃ© Landru (aka Bluebeard), published in
The Anatomy of Murder
(1936), a Detection Club true crime anthology.
Detective Sergeant Bobby Owen is cast into a freelance investigation of the strange death in France of an eccentric, socially prominent Englishwoman at the instigation of his fiancÃ©e, Olive Farrar, owner of a chic West End hat shop, who has despaired of her and Bobby ever being able to save though their regular occupations sufficient money upon which to marry. Fashionable as her hat shop is, business has not been particularly remunerative, Olive having found it rather challenging to persuade more than a few of her hoity-toity customers actually to pay for their purchases; and Bobby's salary as a police sergeant is a comparative pittance. However, Olive informs her fiancÃ©e that one of her best customers (“she pays cash”), the socially-connected Lady Markham (“she was at school with the Home Secretary's wife”), stands poised to come to their rescue, in return for Bobby's rendering of certain investigative services.
Lady Markham has promised Olive that through her politically prominent husband she will secure Bobby's appointment as private secretary to the elderly chief constable of a Midlands county, on condition that Bobby determine what really happened to Lady Markham's late sister, a fifty-five year old amateur artist discovered drowned in a well on the grounds of her domicile, an old converted mill in Citry-sur-l'eau, a charming village in the Auvergne. The French police have concluded that the sister, a Miss Polthwaite, likely committed suicide, but her family firmly rejects this answer. Lady Markham has confided further to Olive that the eccentric Miss Polthwaite, certain that “a revolution was coming, with guillotines in Trafalgar Square and everyone with any money shot at dawn,” was known to have converted most of her cash assets into diamonds, which have since vanished, and that there is a substantial reward--most providential for a newly-married couple--that Bobby can claim if he can locate them.
Given a month off from his job (a bit of Lady Markham's string-pulling, that), Bobby soon is on his way to France to find out what he can about the demise of Miss Polthwaite and the whereabouts of her missing diamonds. Once arrived in Citry-sur-l'eau, he harvests a bumper crop of murder suspects, including both French natives and English expatriates of long and recent standing. Readers now familiar with the Olive Branson case detailed above doubtlessly will cast suspicious glances at the youthful and extremely good-looking Charles Camion, son of the keepers of the local hotel, whom villagers deridingly termed Miss Polthwaite's gigolo; yet there are additional intriguingly dubious characters lurking about the lanes of Citry-sur-l'eau, including a preternaturally sensitive blind beggar known as PÃ¨re TrouchÃ©.
The case is a pleasingly tricky one and Punshon's sense of local color in a French village is assured, so that readers of
should derive some of the same pleasures from the novel that may be found in contemporary works by the crime writer Georges Simenon, a French-language author whose mystery tales, duly translated, were starting to win at this time popularity within the English-speaking world. As Maurice Richardson perceptively wrote in the
, in the novel Punshon “combines ingenious yet sound detection with lively, natural writing in a way that is admirable and all too rareâ¦.The atmosphereâ¦is full of dark forces, yet not too strained, and local colour is most skillfully applied.” With
fans of classic mystery will find that a sojourn in France can be amply rewarding. Read on to see whether Bobby Owen finds it so too.
“Bobby,” said Olive Farrar, a trifle nervously, “do you think you could ask for a month's holiday?”
Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen, of the C.I.D., Metropolitan Police, answered tolerantly:
“I could. I could also ask for the Crown Jewels and promotion to Assistant Commissioner. It would be quite a toss up which drew the largest, loudest, most emphatic âNo'.”
Bobby and Olive were engaged. Bobby had his weekly pay as a police sergeant. Olive owned a hat shop which just about paid its way. If she sold it now, most of her small capital she had sunk in its purchase would be lost. Nor do the police authorities much care about their men interesting themselves in any way in business activities. Business interests and official duties might clash. And though the pay of a sergeant of police is enough for two to live on, the margin is not great. In point of fact Olive and Bobby had just been holding an informal committee meeting of two on Ways and Means and had found the conclusion arrived at a little depressing. Bobby indeed was quite ready and willing, even anxious, to make the hat-shop business a present to anyone who would accept it, but had to admit Olive's point of view when she hesitated to face the loss of her small capital. Olive said thoughtfully:
“You speak French, don't you?”
“I wish it was German,” Bobby said. “Nowadays German's your only wear in the Special Branch.”
“Lady Markham is a customer of ours,” Olive told him.Â
“Who is Lady Markham?” asked Bobby. He added: “Cash customer?”
Olive nodded impressively. In small Mayfair hat shops cash customers are appreciated.
“Well, what about her?” Bobby inquired next as Olive seemed lost in a somewhat awed contemplation of her real live cash customer.
“She's rather nice,” explained Olive, rousing herself, “and she was at school with the Home Secretary's wife.”
“Look here, Olive,” said Bobby uneasily, “don't you get trying to pull strings.”
Olive looked at him gravely and then pronounced the following profound and awful truth:
“The whole art and conduct of life in England consists in pulling strings.”
Bobby gasped. Then he said suspiciously:
“Who told you that?”
“I thought of it myself,” said Olive, though native honesty compelled her to add: “After I had been talking to Lady Markhamâat least I mean after she had been talking to me.”
“Oh,” said Bobby. He asked: “Who is Mr. Lady Markham?”
“Her hubby? Oh, he's an M.P. At least, I think he is, or else he's one of the people who say who are to be M.P.s. It's something to do with politics anyhow.”
“Means he's expert in string-pulling, I suppose,” observed Bobby.
“What,” asked Olive, “is twenty per cent on Â£40,000?”
Bobby was beginning to look a little dazed.
“Olive,” he said, “I know I have only a slow dull masculine mindâ”
But Olive was not listening. She answered her own question.
“Eight thousand pounds,” she said slowly.
“Correct,” said Bobby. “I expect you worked it out before, though. Anyhow, what about it?”
“If you had eight thousand pounds,” Olive pointed out, “you would be in a position to propose to me.”
“I shouldn't think of such a thing,” Bobby declared firmly. “Never take your fences twice. What's this about eight thou, though? Know where it's to be picked up?”
“Lady Markham does.”
“Well, why don't she?”
“Do you remember some months ago there was a lot in the papers about an Englishwoman found dead in an old mill where she had been living somewhere in the Auvergne?”