Documentary Evidence:

E. R. Punshon and the ‘Dossier Novel’


1936 seems to have been a banner year for the form of the mystery novel known as the ‘dossier novel.’

Whereas the traditional crime mystery novel is laid out in straight prose, with a first or third person narrative describing the characters and events that define the stage and set the elements of the story in motion, the dossier novel takes a refreshingly alternative tack to presenting the reader with a crime scene, the characters involved, and the mystery that must be solved.

The dossier novel conveys the information relating to the crime case in a series of ‘documents’: letters, newspaper clippings, telegrams, etc. Thus there is an alternating narration (depending on the author or source of the document), and, ultimately, there is no certainty as to the accuracy of the information in each document. This prompts the reader to assume the role of the ‘sleuth,’ who must shrewdly read through the succession of documents with the aim of guessing the solution to the mystery before the end of the story.

Early examples of this treatment are The Baffle Book [1], The Second Baffle Book and The Third Baffle Book, authored by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A printed promotional slip for The Baffle Book neatly states the nature of the books:


“Twenty-Eight Crime Cases for You to Solve.

If you are baffled — Look up the answers, which are printed upside-down at the end of the book.

‘Observe . . . deduce . . . and reason them out.’ ” [2]


Perhaps the most famous author of this form of crime mystery was Dennis Wheatley. In collaboration with J. G. Links, Wheatley first released Murder Off Miami in July 1936; this was followed by Who Killed Robert Prentice? (1937), The Malinsay Massacre (1938) and Herewith the Clues! (1939).[3] Each book presented a single crime case, and the innovation was that the various documents were supplied in facsimile within the book. Even more elaborately, facsimiles of actual objects—‘evidence’ from the crime scene, such as hair samples, blood-stained matter, poison pills and cigarette butts—were included in the books, evoking a real sense in the reader of being ‘on the case.’ The solution to the mystery was contained in a sealed section at the rear of the book.

Production costs for producing such books were high, but the publisher Hutchinson committed to the series. Murder Off Miami was popular enough to guarantee the other books—but what started off as a strong and inspired concept began to dwindle as the authors lost their momentum. By the third book, the enclosed clue items were at a minimum, and the authors had clearly lost their enthusiasm. But the innovation had been noted, and in America the publisher William Morrow jumped on the bandwagon and began to release their ‘Crime File’ series, starting off with File on Bolitho Blane (1936) by Wheatley (a repackaging of Murder Off Miami) and continuing with ‘File on Rufus Ray’ by Helen Reilly, and ‘File on Fenton and Farr’ and ‘File on Claudia Cragge’ by Q. Patrick.

We don’t know exactly when Wheatley and Links first concocted their dossier books, but they may have been preceded by American crime fiction writer Harry Stephen Keeler. In 1936, two novels by Keeler were published, The Marceau Case and X. Jones—Of Scotland Yard,[4] which the author had written and submitted to his publishers in 1935.[5] These two books are linked, in that they both deal with investigations of a single ‘impossible’ murder. The books are fine examples of the ‘dossier novel’ form, reproducing a dazzling array of ‘documents’ to inform the reader: letters, cablegrams, cartoons, diagrams, and even photographs—including one of the author himself!

1936 also saw the publication of the present book, Documentary Evidence by Robertson Halket, whose only previous novel had been Where Every Prospect Pleases.[6] Of course ‘Robertson Halket’ was the pseudonym of Ernest Robertson Punshon; to create the nom de plume, the author had combined his second name with a name from his mother’s side of the family.[7]

Though Documentary Evidence does not include the same elaborate assortment of ‘clues’ that we find in the Wheatley & Links books—or even the pictorial evidence reproduced in the two Keeler books—it sets out convincingly to convey the information resulting from an ongoing series of crimes via newspaper reports, and, mostly, letters and telegrams exchanged between the main players in the book.

Given E. R. Punshon’s talent for—and obvious delight in—creating believable characters in his novels, it comes as no surprise that the protagonists in Documentary Evidence come across as living, breathing individuals through their personal missives. We might well imagine the author finding this form of character portrayal as an exciting alternative approach to the usual objective third person narrative. One particular example is the subtle growth of fondness between two characters as their correspondence continues. People often communicate in a more considered and personal manner in their correspondence than they do in their dialogue.

Another refreshing aspect to this fragmentary delivery of crime case information is that the reader is given suggestive signposts, yet so much is left undocumented that we are allowed to ‘fill in the gaps’ ourselves. We don’t need to be informed of certain things, because we can inform ourselves based on the evidence.

There are a few elements in Documentary Evidence that foreshadow some of Punshon’s later novels featuring his series sleuth Bobby Owen. In Brought To Light (1954), one of the main characters is the Duke of Blegborough—the same title of a character in Documentary Evidence. Also mentioned in this book is what is assumed to be a luxury sports-car: the ‘Du Guesclin’ Twenty. This car is also mentioned in Dictator’s Way (1938). In Dark is the Clue and Triple Quest (both from 1955), the ‘Du Guesclin’ Twelve is referred to. (As of this writing, details concerning the ‘Du Guesclin’ models Twelve and Twenty remain elusive.)

In 1984, American writer John Sladek released The Book of Clues,[8] a collection of twenty-four different crime puzzles. The pertinent details of each crime scene are given, and the reader must deduce the solution by considering the textual information and accompanying illustrations. Solutions are provided at the end of the book. Sladek, like Punshon, had written straightforward crime fiction novels but was likewise attracted to this alternative approach.


E. R. Punshon’s Documentary Evidence was published almost eighty years ago, and it is timely to return it to print under the author’s actual by-line. Connoisseurs of the dossier novel will now be able to compare its treatment of the form to those of the other well-known purveyors of this distinctive type of crime mystery.

Gavin L. O’Keefe

South Berwick, ME

June 2015


[1]  Edited by F. Tennyson Jesse.

[2] Printed blurb on wrap-around slip from the first British edition of The Baffle Book (William Heinemann, London, 1930).

[3] These books were reprinted by Hutchinson and Webb & Bower between 1979 and 1982. A later reprinting by Magnolia Books in 1986 converted the volumes to straight hardcover book form, with the documents and objects graphically reproduced; this was clearly a move to reduce production costs. Information from ‘Dossier Novels from A to Izzard’ by Fender Tucker, in Keeler News, ed. Richard Polt, Issue 30, December 2000, pp. 8-9.

[4] Both books were published in 1936, in American (by Dutton) and England (by Ward, Lock & Co.). The number of pictorial clues were reduced in the English editions.

[5] Francis M. Nevins, ‘Keeler Year By Year: 1925-1942’, in Keeler News, ed. Richard Polt, No. 10, October, 1997, pp.6-7.

[6]  Ernest Benn, London, 1933.

[7] Information from Jack Adrian’s biographical sketch of Punshon in The Ash-Tree Press Annual Macabre 2000 (Ash-Tree Press, Ashcroft, Canada, 2000).

[8] Corgi, London, 1984. Released as a paperback, this was the book’s only publication.