The Short Fiction of E. R. Punshon
ERNEST ROBERTSON PUNSHON (1872-1956) was an English author who wrote prolifically in a number of genres, but who is today chiefly remembered for his crime fiction. His mystery novels are appreciated by connoisseurs for their intricate plots, memorable atmospheres and substantial characters.
In an article entitled ‘Novel and Story Writing Experiences,’ published in The Editor in 1922. Punshon gives a charming and candid account of his formative years, especially in regard to his writing, and the piece is worthy of quoting in full here.
I suppose that like practically every other writer I began as soon as convenient after I was born, which is always the first necessary step. I was certainly weaving dreams for myself before I could form my letters and it is from such early childish dreams that the novels and plays, the stories and poems, of later days develop in due course. The critics who wish to dis-courage us when we begin to write have a hopeless task, they do not catch us sufficiently young—generally speaking the case is hopeless after one has turned seven. I know, speaking for myself, that when I was not much older than that my chief pleasure was to escape all alone for long solitary country walks during which I told myself—and never have I had a more appreciative audience—interminable tales with myself for the splendid hero, always magnificently successful. Then gradually as I grew older I begun to put these dreams down on paper, and still more gradually they begun now and then to find their way into print. An effort at farming in Canada, followed by some years of wandering through the north western states interrupted my literary attempts for a lengthy period, but the experiences I then acquired I have made much use of afterwards in my fiction. The knowledge that I then gained, for example, of life in the Michigan lumber camps I have used in the writing of my story “Scared Stiff” in the December, 1921, Everybody’s, where I have endeavored to combine a sketch of the rough life of the lumber camp with a contrast between the hard, vigorous, often brutal but almost always “straight” lumber man and the earnest young college missionary. I have wanted, too, in that story to show how in each of these different types there is the same human nature and how, though of-ten by unexpected paths, they may come to understand and appreciate ouch other. Pugilism is a subject that has always had an attraction for me, as apparently it has also had for such prominent figures in the world of literature as Bernard Shaw and Maeterlinck, and I know no better school in which to learn the lessons of courage, self-control, and grit—three qualities of no small importance. The beginnings of pugilism as an organized sport in England in the early days of the nineteenth century is indeed the background I have chosen for my novel ‘Old Fighting Days,’ recently published by Mr. Alfred Knopf, of New York.
The first important success I had was, I think, my carrying off of the prize offered by one of the London morning papers for the best serial submitted to them, though the year before this I had published my first full dress novel, one entitled “Constance West” that was published in America by the John Lane Company. This is a story of Canadian farm life. Since then I have written various other novels and serials and I have contributed to most of the British magazines and periodicals. Naturally it has been a great pleasure to me to receive also of late substantial encouragement from American editors and publishers.
Always in writing my first object has been to tell a story, though never forgetting that for a story to be interesting and credible it must be about characters as lifelike and as closely observed as the skill of the author can achieve, for indeed if the characters are that, the story can scarcely fail to be inter-esting and credible. But for me the tale’s the thing, and for this I claim the example of the greatest of all writers. What story could be more tragic than that of Hamlet, more poignant than that of Lear, more touching than that of Romeo and Juliet, more charming than that related in the Midsummer’s Night’s Dream?
As for my own personality—though an author’s personality is nothing and his work everything—I was born in London and went to work in the accounts office of a railroad at the age of sixteen. After a year or two my office superiors told me gently that they thought I was not without intelligence but that my intelligence and my work did not seem somehow to coincide. So I thanked them for the hint, gracefully accepted it, and departed to Canada on the farming venture I have already mentioned. When in due course, not having come across the fortune I had left my home to find, I returned to England, I started writing in earnest, and have by now a fairly lengthy list of work done to show—which I hope during forthcoming years to increase substantially.
E. R. Punshon is best known today for his two crime fiction series—the five novels featuring Inspector Carter and Sergeant Bell (1929-1932) and the thirty-five Bobby Owen mysteries (1933-1956)—but, prior to these, a respectable number of the author’s stand-alone thriller, adventure and general fiction novels had been published in England and America.
Perhaps the least known of Punshon’s oeuvre may be the numerous short stories he wrote throughout his career. Not only a prolific short story writer, Punshon was adept at writing stories for a range of audiences. Stories such as ‘The Solitary’ (1898), ‘An August’ (1907), ‘Marriage by Capture’ (1908), ‘A Seaside Singer’ (1910), ‘A Mystery of the Downs’ (1912), ‘The Ghost of Travers Court’ (1914), ‘Just Like Kimber’ (1918), ‘Hitting Back’ (1919), ‘Scared Stiff’ (1921) and ‘A Greek Gift’ (1925) amply display the author’s skill at catering to a readership keen on romance, humour and adventure. Many of these stories were inspired by the author’s own youthful experiences in Canada and North America. However, the short fiction of E. R. Punshon that especially stands out is that of a criminous or supernatural nature, and the aim of this collection is to highlight the author’s writing in these genres.
Given the long-term success of the novels featuring Punshon’s likeable sleuth Bobby Owen, it is not surprising that he wrote short fiction involving Owen. In fact, Bobby Owen first appears in the 1936 story ‘A Study in the Obvious,’ and the events of that tale inspire Owen to join the police force. The five known Bobby Owen short stories are included in this volume, and it is a neat feature that the author gives us a snapshot of Owen’s career in the police force by having him with a different rank in each tale:
‘A Study in the Obvious’ [leads to joining the police]
‘Good Beginning’ Constable
‘Find the Lady’ Sergeant
‘Making Sure’ [not indicated, but probably Inspector]
‘Three Sovereigns for a Corpse’ Commander
Also in this collection are several of the author’s stand-alone criminous stories, and these show the author’s talent for creating crime scenarios and believable characters. These tales occasionally feature elements of black humour and satire, and as such they provide an interesting counterpoint to Punshon’s more serious crime fiction.
E. R. Punshon is not widely known as a writer of horror fiction, perhaps because of his career devotion to detective fiction. However, as can be seen from the supernatural stories included in this collection, Punshon was adept at creating evocative and haunting tales. These stories were written early in the writer’s career—when he was also writing romantic and adventure fiction—but they seem to shine with a stronger and more scintillating light than his more general stories. The tale ‘The Haunted Chessmen’ was published in the March 1930 issue of Weird Tales, and its inclusion in that influential American horror magazine seems a perfect fit. ‘The Last Ascent,’ published a year later, clearly pays homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s haunting aerial story ‘The Horror of the Heights’ (1913)—although Punshon handles the theme in a subtly distinct manner.
Ramble House has been proud to reprint a number of the Bobby Owen novels in recent years, and it is hoped that this collection will bring E. R. Punshon’s short fiction to a new audience.
Gavin L. O’Keefe
South Berwick, ME