More Deadly Than the Male

"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)

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.

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.

But then again, it has been remarked how Fergus Hume's The Mystery of Hansom Cab (1886) and the short stories from J.E. Preston-Muddock's Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective (collected in 2005) have a peculiar modern feel about them. So maybe the modern crime novel is inherently regressive. Sorry, but I could not resist that small jab, which should not be perceived as a backhanded slight at Punshon. I've become very fond of his mystery novels and while some of his experimental works, such as The Bath Mysteries and Four Strange Women, will not always fully satisfy the purist, I can heartily recommend some of his more traditionally crafted stories, e.g. Information Received (1933), Death Comes to Cambers (1935) and Ten Star Clues (1941).


  1. Some people in the modern world seem to think that they are in some manner different (or even better than) their predecessors. The computer network has not changed anything; it only allows us to behave stupidly at a faster rate than before. In the end we are no different than our ancestors; the only constant is human nature. Crime is pretty much the same regardless of the era, only the instruments of crime change. Nothing is modern. If things seem to be different, it is just because, over time, societies are at different locations in the historical cycle.

    1. "The computer network has not changed anything; it only allows us to behave stupidly at a faster rate than before."

      I blame social media more than the internet itself. Before that, the internet was too decentralized to amplify human stupidity in the way social media has done.

      And I might borrow that quote in the future.

    2. Please feel free to quote anything I have ever written, although it is difficult to write something that someone somewhere has not already said before.
      It strikes me that the Internet had become well centralized by the early years of the 21st century. This is why Barabasi and Albert found in 2000 that the probability density function of the structure of the Internet was a power law, which I interpret to mean that it had by that time developed a hierarchical or more centralized structure. It is interesting to note that Murray Leinster back in 1946, when he was predicting the Internet in "A Logic Named Joe," also predicted that the personal computer network would absorb all other means of communication on the planet and the data would come from centralized sources.
      Social media is a complete puzzle to me. Someone somewhere said that the social medial is a cheap way to indulge our narcissism; other than that I can find no significance in it.
      It seems to me that one of the biggest problems with the Internet is that it destroys the preconditions for its own effective usage, these preconditions being literacy and memory. In other words, the computer is eroding our literacy skills, and literacy skills are the precondition for effective computer usage. I read somewhere that our memory skills were deteriorating because we always assume that we can retrieve the data from the Internet rather than from our memories, so we don't bother to memorize things (memorization being hard work). The problem is that you can only do effective research if you first have an idea of what you are looking for. I have found that the hardest part of any research is to find the right key words, because every field has its own specialized terminology. If you have not memorized the basic structure of knowledge, then you can go on forever trying to find what you are looking for until you finally stumble over the right words; garbage in, garbage out. If you need good literacy and memory skills to effectively use the Internet, and the Internet is in effect destroying these skills, then the Internet is itself destroying our ability to use it. I don't like to think about what will become of us if this is the case.
      I think there are a lot of good detective novels which could be written around this theme, but the only one of which I am aware is the very prescient, although pre-computer, Murder on the Thirty-First Floor by Per Wahloo (one half of the Martin Beck writing team).
      I find this whole situation very frustrating. We could be living in the middle of a second Golden Age, instead of foraging among the remains of the old one (as good as they are) but the modern mystery writers are ignoring all the themes they could be using, themes of the greatest importance, and instead they give us another pseudo-historical novel, or Sherlock Holmes pastiche or something about cats and quilting bees. The mystery story is very well adapted to explore these themes, but I don't see anyone doing it. The dominant problem of our time is our technology and its effects on us, and yet I see nothing about this from the modern mystery writer. The only ones who seem to be coming to grips with this at all are the Japanese.

    3. "I find this whole situation very frustrating. We could be living in the middle of a second Golden Age, instead of foraging among the remains of the old one (as good as they are) but the modern mystery writers are ignoring all the themes they could be using, themes of the greatest importance, and instead they give us another pseudo-historical novel, or Sherlock Holmes pastiche or something about cats and quilting bees."

      I’ve a theory about this and wanted to dedicate a blog-post to it, but I might as well give a summation of it here: I believe the root cause of the modern, genre-illiterate mystery writers can be found in the stemming of the natural flow of new talent entering the genre after the 1950s. During the golden years, mystery writers were (often) given the time to sharpen their skills and build up an audience, but that slowly came to an end after the 1940s.

      The natural flow of new, traditionally minded mystery writers were stemmed and eventually rejected on a large scale in favor of writers who could produce character-driven fluff pieces, which required less skill than creating clever and original plots.

      Even some of the (semi-) familiar names, such as Hake Talbot, C. Daly King and Joseph Commings, had work rejected because they were being old-fashioned. Now just imagine a generation of young, hopeful writers who were ready to follow in the footsteps of Carr, Christie and Queen (just as they had followed in the footsteps of Doyle and Chesterton), but were rejected because publishers wanted something different at the time.

      Now fast forward to today and the internet has broken open the market for classically-styled mystery novels, but the mainstream branch of the genre barely has anything to offer to us. Because they had not invested in that type of mystery novels for nearly half a century. So we’re condemned to forage between remnants of the previous Golden Era and hope this will be seen in the future as an age of rediscovery that’ll lead to a second Golden Age.

      What really saddens me is that there was one writer who, age-wise, belonged to that third generation of Golden Age writers, but began to write after he retired from his regular job during the 1980s. That man was Herbert Resnicow. He read detective stories during the 1940s and showed in some of his own work a new approach to the locked room problem.

      Yes, the Japanese seem the only who knows how this game is played in the 21st century, e.g. The Devotion of Suspect X.

      P.S. I read years ago how not having to memorize (long) phone numbers has actually us dumber.

  2. Loved reading your take on this novel, TomCat. I wrote about FOUR STRANGE WOMEN last week on my blog - great minds think alike! I'm now reading DEATH COMES TO CAMBERS and have just about finished THE BITTERMEADS MYSTERY. I'm going to add THE BATH MYSTERIES to my Kindle, asap. I'm really liking Punshon's work.

    1. Death Comes to Cambers was really good and can recommend Ten Star Clues, which you'll probably like as a fellow Punshon work. There's something really likable about his work, in spite of his verbose writing style, which not every (modern) reader is a fan of.

  3. Enjoyed this review, you have really been on a roll lately! Of course Punshon has a much more, let us say, stately style than Carr, but he had darker imagination that he let loose in his books which I find interesting.