Brought to Light (1954) is the thirty-second detective novel in the estimable Bobby Owen series, published when E.R. Punshon was an octogenarian and had only two years left to live, but the characters, plot and story-telling still bristled with the vitality and inventiveness of the early novels – barely any wear or tear. I think Nick Fuller described the story perfectly when he called it the work of a man half Punshon's age.
Punshon not only retained his vitality as a story-teller, but also remembered how to design a maze-like plot out of numerous, intertwined plot-threads and manipulated those strands like a nimble-fingered puppeteer. This is what makes even late-period Punshon a treat to read.
|Reprinted by Dean Street Press|
Brought to Light brings Bobby Owen, Deputy Commander of the Metropolitan Police, to the pleasant country town of Penton, "once upon a time the capitol of the Kingdom of Mercia," where he had been given a course of three lectures to the West Mercian Police. The West Mercian Chief Constable, Major Rowley, had offered modest prizes to his men for the three best essays on these lectures and Owen was tasked with picking the winners, but his attention is drawn away to the lingering residue of a tragic, long-buried love story in a nearby village – involving grave robbing, lost poems and murder.
Hillings-under-Moor is "a scattered, lonely sort of place" laying on "the fringe of the Great Mercian Moor." The only claim to fame this tiny village has is a lonely grave in the churchyard.
Janet Merton was the lover of a celebrated poet, Stephen Asprey, who placed his love-letters and unpublished poems in her coffin when she passed away, because one day, he wanted the world to know what it owed the woman who had rekindled his Muse. So the grave began to attract coach parties, American tourists and passing motorists, who often "try to chip off bits of the tombstone for what they call souvenirs," but there has also been much talk about opening the grave to retrieve the letters and poems. A proponent of opening the grave is Edward Pyle, of the Morning Daily, who has a lot of back-room pull and even got a question asked about it in Parliament – prompting the Home Secretary to promise a request for opening the grave would receive "favourable consideration." However, Pyle faces stiff opposition.
The grave is a freehold of the Merton family and is now in name of Miss Christabel Merton, a niece of Janet Merton, who says she will never agree to its opening.
The Duke of Blegborough also has his personal reasons why he would prefer the Merton grave to remain undisturbed. His wife had died from taking an overdose of sleeping pills and, locally, there were whispers the Duchess was poisoned by the Duke, because he believed she had cheated on him with the famous poet, Asprey. The Duke is afraid that the love-letters mentions his late wife and fan the flames.
However, if you think this is the whole premise of Brought to Light, you're sorely mistaken and need to read more Punshon. This is only the beginning.
Several years ago, the previous rector, Mr. Thorne, left the rectory one night for an evening stroll and has never been seen or heard of since. There were gossip that Thorn was heavily in debt or got himself involved with a woman who had disappeared around the same time, but other simply assumed he has lost his way on the lonely, desolate moor when he was caught in one of the moor mists that can come up out of nowhere – simply walked circles until he died from cold and exposure. The present curate-in-charge, Mr. Day-Bell, wants Owen to take charge of the Thorn case in the hope that it will smother the rumormongers. Mr. Day-Bell also worries the Merton grave might be opened without permission.
The widow of the poet, Mrs. Asprey, lives nearby the churchyard in "an old, half-ruined house" and is "a formidable old lady." She had chased Pyle from her home with a revolver and she has been making the victory sign above the grave of Janet Merton. There's a Samuel Chrines, a "petty scribbler," who claims to be the love child of Asprey and Pyle has brought a hard-bitten, unsavory character, named Item Sims, with him from London.
|Reprinted by Ramble House|
So, there you have, as I remember them, all of the plot pieces and, towards the halfway mark of the story, a burned-out caravan with a body inside is found on the Great Mercian Moor.
Deputy Commander Owen takes charge of the investigation and calmly, but competently, traces down the murder weapon and talks to everyone involved with grave, which actually reminded me of Ngaio Marsh. However, Brought to Light is not guilty of, what Brad of Aw, Sweet Mystery calls, "dragging-the-marsh." The characters he talks to are interesting or unusual. Such as John Hagen, church sexton and a passionate, self-taught classical scholar, who only lives for his books. Combine this with a pleasantly tangled plot, rich writing and an equally rich backdrop brimming with ancient history – which has always been one of Punshon's strong points. Death Comes to Cambers (1935) and Ten Star Clues (1941) are good examples of Punshon's sense of time-and place.
I mentioned in my opening that there was barely any wear and tear, but the keyword there is barely and there a little bit of wear in these very late-period Bobby Owen stories that should not go unmentioned. At this late hour, Punshon evidently had become less adept at hiding the murderer from his readers. I spotted the murderer here even sooner than the one in Punshon's swan song, Six Were Present (1956), but hardly something to complain about in this case. Brought to Light is an impressive and imaginative piece of detective-fiction from a 82-year-old man. So I can forgive Punshon here for having failed to pull the wool over my eyes.
However, I do prefer early-period Bobby Owen to the high-ranking, battle-tested Commander of the Metropolitan Police. Owen was at his best when he was young, fresh-faced policeman, slowly climbing the ranks, while traveling the countryside on his motor cycle to go from one murder to the other. Or the period when he was working for the Wychshire County Police (e.g. Diabolic Candelabra, 1942). But that is a personal preference. Not a complaint.
So, all in all, Brought to Light turned out to be a worthy addition to this excellent series. It was perhaps not entirely flawless, but Punshon had barely lost a step in nearly half a century of writing, beginning with The Mystery of Lady Isobel (1907), which is a welcome change from the dramatic decline in quality that usually befalls prolific writers towards the end of their careers – which unfortunately happened to my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr. So it was nice to see that one of my other favorites had remained (nearly) at the top of his game towards the end.