Four Strange Women (1940) is the fourteenth mystery novel in E.R. Punshon's Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen series and was republished only last year by the Dean Street Press, which means there's brief, but informative, introduction by genre-historian and fellow crime connoisseur, Curt Evans – who can be found blogging over at The Passing Tramp. It's was his introduction that convinced me to toss this one on the top of the pile."And yet the motives of women are so inscrutable... their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs."- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Second Stain," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1904)
In his preface, Evans goes over the plot and overarching theme of the story, namely the female of the species, which, as the title of this blog-post gives away, is often more deadlier than the male. A theme that compelled Ellery Queen to compile one of their better-known anthologies of detective fiction, The Female of the Species (1943). But that's literary a different story.
Punshon's exploration of the theme is described as a portrayal of the "darker potentialities in romantic relationships between men and women" and is, justly, likened to a darker, grittier reimagination of The ABC Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie, but what ignited my interest a mention of everyone's favorite mystery writer. The introduction revealed Punshon as a huge admirer of John Dickson Carr and he used to shovel a ton of praise on his work when he reviewed books for the Manchester Guardian, which is illustrated by a handful of quotes about The Hollow Man (1935), The Burning Court (1937) and The Reader is Warned (1939) – noting that readers should detect a "resemblance to the memorable Grand Guignol" from "Carr's shuddery shockers" in Four Strange Women. Indisputably, the man had an impeccable and refined taste for the detective stories! Let's see if the comparison to Carr stands.
Four Strange Women follows closely on the events from the previous book, Murder Abroad (1939), in which an important society figure, Lady Markham, engaged the services of Owen to perform a semi-private investigation into the death of a family member in France. As a reward, she would use her influence to get him an appointment as an inspector and private-secretary to the elderly Colonel Glynne, Chief Constable of Wychshire, but the night before his departure he finds a problem on his doorstep – brought to him by the impish looking Lord Henry Darmoor and his fiancée, Gwen Barton.
It's from them that Bobby learns of the sudden, inexplicable deaths of two of their acquaintances: Viscount Byatt of Byatt was found dead in his car, somewhere in the middle of Dartmoor, he had "been dead for a week or two before he was found," which made it difficult to find an exact cause of death. Second man to pass away under peculiar circumstances was Andy White, a second-generation millionaire, who was found in a cottage, "miles from everywhere in Wales," and he had been dead for at least a month. Before they were found dead, they were "getting rid of pots of money," which pertains to the women they were seeing at the time, but some of the expensive jewelry they had been buying has vanished without a trace – which definitely makes the sudden deaths of both men suspicious as hell. Lord Darmoor and Barton fear a mutual friend of them, Billy Baird, is marked for a third victim.
Evidently, the plot of Four Strange Women echoes elements from a previous entry in this series, The Bath Mysteries (1936), in which men who were forgotten by society were found dead in bathtubs. Punshon was apparently not done with exploring potentialities of thus subject, but used rich, successful society men as the victims for this book. And he threw the bathtubs out.
Anyway, Bobby soon realizes that this case will place him between a rock and a hard place, because all of the women who had links to the dead men are friends of one another, but the worst part is that one of them is the daughter of his new superior – previously mentioned Colonel Glynne. As if the situation was not complicated enough, the charred remains of Billy Baird are recovered from the burned out debris of his touring caravan in a secluded spot of Wychwood Forest.
After this setup, the book begins to echo the story of The Bath Mysteries again, which is, structural an early serial killer novel, but dressed as a police procedural and Four Strange Woman is not much different in that regard. Bobby occupies himself with talking to the people he encounters and poking between the wreckage of the destroyed lives he finds, which allows him to slowly build up a picture of the murderer. However, I would hardly call the slow, plodding advance to the truth a Carrian tale of shocks, shudders and horrors. There are a number of characters who claim that "the powers of hell have broken loose" or how there was "some horror they dared not contemplate," but the atmosphere was only stated as being terrifying and the only genuine piece of Grand Guignol revealed itself in the final chapters of the book – when Bobby tumbled down and explored a dark basement. What he found there uncovered a cleverly hidden plot-thread.
Plot-wise, that plot-thread also gave the book a new and interesting prospective, because it basically turned the entire story in one big prologue to that second plot-thread. Even more interesting, Punshon could have written a detective story that revolved and began with the discovery in the basement, which would have involved the same plot-strands and cast of characters, but would have made for a completely different story – using the serial killer-angle as a dish of clue-sprinkled red herrings in the background. I found that to be a curious, but interesting, aspect of the overall plot of the story.
In any case, Four Strange Women is notable as an early example of the serial killer novel, which would become a cornerstone of the contemporary, post-WWII crime novel. It's kind of astonishing that a man from Punshon's generation, who was born in the 1870s and saw the emergence of the era of electricity, wrote detective stories in the Golden Age of the genre which seemed very modern or predictive of the modern crime novels of today.