Saturday, October 22, 2011

Diabolic Candelabra - E. R. Punshon

The settings in Diabolic Candelabra (1942), E. R. Punshon's labyrinthine detective novel, are tantalizingly named and may be just the bait to lure you inside the pages of this remarkably well done story. It seems as if we're in the land of LeFanu with a house called Barsley Abbey surrounded by the picturesque lake Heron's Mere, the treacherous quarry Boggart's Hole with a hidden cave, and a wreck of a hut that is home to a man dubbed Peter the Hermit. The stolen silver items of the title supposedly made by Cellini with several legends attached -- one tells of a curse uttered by one of Cellini's murder victims that will bring death to anyone who keeps them lighted -- only enhance an overall Gothic feel to the story.

But it is the search for a recipe for irresistible chocolates that sends Inspector Bobby Owen and his wife Olive to a small village not far from the manufacturing town of Midwych. Olive has been asked by her friend Mrs. Weston to seek out a woman named Mary Floyd who is known to make these delectable treats so they can sell them at an upcoming church fair. When Owen and his wife track down Miss Floyd they find her in a house in an overgrown forest and living with an invalid mother, an abusive stepfather, and a strange little girl who can communicate with animals and spends more time flitting through the maze of twisting trees of the forest than she does in her home. It's all beginning to sound like something from the Brothers Grimm, isn't it?

Prior to finding Miss Floyd, her mother, and the weird girl named Loo, Owen met up with the local policeman Sergeant Turner who felt it necessary to talk about another legend, this one about two missing El Greco paintings, most likely to give the town an air of mystery Owen thinks. But those missing paintings will play an important part in the story. That and the desire for several people to acquire the secret ingredient in the chocolate recipe which Mary Floyd reveals is the invention of Peter the Hermit. Owen learns that the hermit is a skilled herbalist who spends much of his time concocting a variety of pain relieving medications. This infuriates the local physician, Dr. Maskell, who is losing many of patients to the hermits botched medicines and leads the doctor to call the meddling hermit a "licensed murderer."

Hoping that they can get the recipe for the secret ingredient in the chocolates, a flavor enhancing essence whipped up by the hermit, Owen and Olive head into the woods to find the hermit's hut. When they arrive the place is in a shambles -- furniture thrown about, old books ripped open, and a bloodstain on the floor. Owen notices that although there is freshly chopped firewood outside the axe used to chop that wood is nowhere to be found. And neither is Peter the Hermit. Then a local man named Richard Rawdon, nephew to Sir Andrew Rawdon who owns the forest and land on which the hut is located, disturbs the Owens in their investigation. The situation is further complicated by Rawdon's reluctance to admit why he was visiting the hut at that precise time.

When another local man turns up missing and he is revealed as Charles Clayfoot, owner of a baking and confectionery company that was selling the mysteriously addictive chocolates, Owen is asked to investigate the possibility of foul play. The chocolate recipe, the missing paintings, the cursed candelabra and a variety of strangers popping up in the village looking for one or all of those items make for an intriguing, multilayered and thoroughly captivating detective story. There is a lot to enjoy here from lively and original characters, the creepy settings, and a finale set in a candlelit cave complete with gunfire and fistfights that seems to have been lifted from a Dennis Wheatley thriller.

I'm glad I chose this book by the prolific Punshon to introduce me to his work. He's quite a hit and miss writer which is to be expected from someone who churned out over fifty detective novels as well as historical fiction, adventure and mainstream novels. This one is a definite hit. Most of his mystery novels feature Bobby Owen as detective, but he also wrote about the sleuthing duo of Carter and Bell who appear in five books. Punshon is one of those Golden Age writers who slipped through the cracks. None of his books are currently in print. If you come across an old used copy of Diabolic Candelabra I suggest you buy it then and there. It's one of those refreshing surprises that are waiting to be discovered among the  hundreds of overlooked vintage detective novels. A further recommendation comes in this glowing endorsement emblazoned on the dust jackets of several of the Victor Gollancz editions of Punshon's mysteries:
"What is distinction? The few who achieve it step - plot or no plot - unquestioned into the first rank. We recognized it in Sherlock Holmes, and in Trent's Last Case, in The Mystery of the Villa Rose, in the Father Brown stories and in the works of Mr. E. R. Punshon we salute it every time." -- Dorothy L. Sayers


  1. Great review. I'm glad you devoted some space to an author who produced some worthwhile work and was a beloved member of the Detection Club (since my CADS Supplement 14).

    Sayers read his books regularly between 1929 and Punshon's death in the 1950s.

  2. I only read one book by this author, Information Received, which was excellent, if somewhat predictable, and would've read more of him if his books were more readily available over here. But your review makes me want to place a special order for this one. It sounds like a blast!

  3. The Bittermeads Mystery is available at Project Gutenberg. I just downloaded a free copy to my Kindle.

  4. What are the dates of these, John?

  5. Rick -

    Diabolic Candelabra was published by Victor Gollancz in 1942 and is one of Punshon's later books. It has no US edition. There are a few copies of the later edition, a reprint from 1948 which is the one I own, for sale on the internet from UK booksellers. They seem to be reading copies, but I think all of them are affordable even with the shipping fee taken into account.

    As for the illustrations: MYSTERY OF MR JESSOP (Hillman-Curl, 1937) and THERE'S A REASON FOR EVERYTHING (Macmillan, 1945).

    Very few of Punshon's books were published in the US. Hillman-Curl released four of his books in the 1930s and then Macmillan published him throughout the 1940s. But most of his mystery novels were published only in the UK and few had paperback editions. It's really hard to find his work. I have only three other Punshon books and they are all US editions from the 1940s.

  6. Hmmm, I haven't read any books by this author...yet.

    Thanks John, for another terrific review. You make me want to run right out and find this book and begin reading. :)

  7. Good luck finding any, Yvette. I have to give a nod to Curt Evans (aka "vegetableduck" in the comments) who pointed out in a long list of Best of the Golden Age that this is one of Punshon's better books. I'm glad this is the one I chose to read first. It will get me to seek out more, though as I mention above, some of them are not as clever, original or entertainingly odd as this one.

  8. Just purchased a Kindle copy for 2.99. Great price and my appetite is whetted.