"We balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination."- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)
Everybody Always Tells (1950) is the twenty-seventh entry in E.R. Punshon's prolific Bobby Owen series, who's "quite an important person nowadays at Scotland Yard," which tantalizingly promised "a fatal knife-blow" delivered to a patent agent and scientific adviser to a well-known law-firm – a blow that's reportedly delivered inside a locked room. So, of course, the book attracted my attention and assumed it would be a great followup to the recently reviewed Six Were Present (1956).
However, this is not an impossible crime novel in any way, shape or form, but more about the supposed locked room angle later.
Everybody Always Tells opens in a swanky London department store, where Owen plays the role of pack mule for his wife, Olive, but their bargain safari takes a strange turn when a store-detective, Miss Rice, approaches Owen. She just saw how "a peer of the realm," Lord Newdagonby, took a pearl necklace from the jewelry counter and furtively slipped it into Olive's handbag. Owen does not appreciate people "who push necklaces into other people's handbags" and decides to call upon his lordship, but that's where the problems begin to snowball out of control.
Lord Newdagonby resides at Dagonby House, "a wilderness of a place," consisting of a "twisted, twinning labyrinth of passages," corners, alcoves and empty, cobweb strewn rooms, which were vacated during the war – as "footmen turned into guardsmen" and "kitchen maids into munition workers." The post-war years saw the domestic staff of such sprawling estates shrink and eventually vanish forever.
So the Lord now lives there with his sole daughter, Mrs. Sibby Findley, who shed all respectability of the previous generation and scandalously left an Anglican sisterhood on the ground that she had found there was nothing to religion. She even publicly announced her intention to sample sin to see what that has to offer her and reputedly blackmailed her husband into marriage. Mr. Ivor Findley is a patent expert and scientific adviser, who has his own workroom/laboratory in the house, where he prefers to retreat to work in quiet solitude.
There's also a friend of Mrs. Findley present, one Charley Acton, who can be described as a dilettante inventor currently working on "an everlasting razor blade" and wrote a controversial article suggesting envisioning the manufacture of "a smaller artificial sun to accompany the planet Mars in its orbit," which would eventually make the planet available for human habitation. But the great visionary struck Owen as a pet dog (on a leash) trotting after its mistress.
Even for the post-war world, this is not a stereotypical, 1950s-era household and Owen learns the reason Lord Newdagonby tried to attract his attention, with the pearls, is a prospective murder. There were several mysterious phone calls made to the house and they sounded alarming, but Bobby doesn't have to wait long to find out how serious these warnings were: Mrs Findley is unable to get a response from her husband, who has locked himself inside his work room, but swears she could hear him groaning. So Bobby uses his, "quite unofficial," skills as a locksmith to pick the simplistic and token lock on the door of the workroom. And what he finds inside is the mortally wounded body of Findley. The handle of a sharpened kitchen knife was sticking out of his back.
However, as noted in the opening of this blog-post, Everybody Always Tells is not a locked room novel, because the keys to the door were not found inside the room. While it was not explicitly mentioned that the murderer locked the door, as this person fled from the crime-scene, but it appears to be the only logical conclusion as no other feasible explanation was given for the locked nature of the room. So this aspect of the plot was, uncharacteristically, sloppy work on the part of Punshon, but then again, the book does seem to be written in a bit of a hurry.
Usually, Punshon manipulates half a dozen related, and unrelated, plot-threads with the skilled, nimble fingers of a seasoned puppeteer, but, this time around, the plot was surprisingly slender – focusing on this sole murder and the small circle of suspects surrounding it. This makes identifying the murderer a cakewalk for veteran armchair detectives. So in that regard Punshon really under performed, as a writer, in this outing, because (plot-wise) we know can do so much better than this.
Luckily, Everybody Always Tells still reflects Punshon's talent as a story-teller and plotter, which is, perhaps, best shown in the unusual clue of the empty guinea pig cage. A cage that had fresh food and water, but the two guinea pigs were nowhere to be found and their fate is directly tied to the stabbing and the somewhat unusual motive. I'm not entirely sure how (scientifically) accurate one aspect of this clue and motive actually is, however, it shows Punshon (in his late seventies) was still very much aware of the world around him. You can say this part of the story is a stereotypical plot-device of the fifties, but the book was published when that decade had only just began and this may very well be one of the earliest examples of it turning up crime-and thriller fiction from the era.
So not bad for a man whose formative years took place in the last period that preceded the Age of Electricity!
Finally, it has to be pointed out that Punshon, similar to John Dickson Carr, would probably have found equal success as a writer of ghost stories. There's a delightful and haunting scene towards the end, which takes place over an open well, that recalls a similar scene, involving an open grave, from The Dark Garden (1941). Punshon's talent for macabre, old-fashioned set pieces is the only thing that betrayed his heart and soul matured during the nineteenth century.
All in all, Everybody Always Tells is not one of Punshon's topnotch performances as a mystery novelist, but this will not deter fans of Bobby Owen from enjoying this specific entry in the series.
Well, as things stand now, my pick for favorite Punshon on my best-of list for 2017 is going to be a three-cornered fight between Diabolic Candelabra (1942), There's a Reason for Everything (1945) and the previously mentioned Six Were Present.