Triple Quest:


E. R. Punshon, Bobby Owen, and Art



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 mysteries are appreciated by connoisseurs for their intricate plots, memorable atmospheres and substantial characters.

Little is known of Punshon’s life. By the early 1900s a respectable number of his novels had been published, mostly in England but several in America; these early novels included thrillers and popular and historical fiction. He later wrote two novels using the pseudonym “Robertson Halkett.” By 1929, however, he had found his niche: that year saw the publication in America of The Blue John Diamond, and, more importantly, the publication in England of The Unexpected Legacy, the first book in a series of five featuring Inspector Carter and Sergeant Bell.

In the early 1930s E. R. Punshon became a member of the famous British society of mystery writers, The Detection Club, which boasted an illustrious membership including such luminaries of the genre as G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie,[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode, Baroness Orczy, R. Austin Freeman, E.C. Bentley, Henry Wade, H.C. Bailey and Anthony Berkeley.

Punshon’s fellow Detection Club member, Dorothy L. Sayers, championed his writing in her article ‘Salute to Mr. Punshon.’[2]


“What is distinction? . . . The few who achieve it step—plot or no plot—unquestioned into the first rank. We recognised it in Sherlock Holmes and in Trent’s Last Case, in The Mystery at the Villa Rose, in the Father Brown stories, and in the works of Mr. E.R. Punshon we salute it every time.”


This quote, from her longer review, was later prominently displayed by publisher Victor Gollancz on the front of many of the dust jackets of their editions of E.R. Punshon’s books.[3]

Anthony Boucher, the noted American author and reviewer of crime fiction, included in his monthly column for the San Francisco Chronicle a letter from Punshon describing the nature and purpose of The Detection Club:


Far too little has appeared in print on the subject of The Detection Club of London. The following letter from E.R. Punshon is released by The Macmillan Company to celebrate There’s A Reason For Everything, Mr. Punshon’s “fourth book to appear in the United States” (by which, with the usual bibliographical solipsism of publishers, Macmillan means his fourth book to be published by Macmillan.)


“The London Detection Club was founded some years before the war with the idea of bringing together those writers of detective stories who were willing to aim at as high a literary standard as their gifts permitted, and to avoid the easy, the trite, and the conventional. For instance, the homicidal maniac, for whose actions no reasoned explanation is required, and, in general, those tricks Mr. Bernard Shaw has classified as the ‘all the time’ stunt, by which he meant the trick of, for example, introducing and describing an old man with a long beard, and then explaining in the last chapter that it was ‘all the time’ the handsome young hero in disguise.

“The subscription to the club is nominal, the expenses are provided by communal effort, as, for example, by the publication of books to which various members contribute—such as The Anatomy of Murder,[4] brought out before the war.

“For the ceremony of initiation Miss Dorothy L. Sayers provided us with an amusing formula. In this, Eric, the club’s mascot, a skull provided for eyes with electric bulbs that glow terrifyingly at critical moments, is produced, and on Eric the candidate proclaims his willingness to do his best to live up to the club’s standards, invoking upon himself in failure such dire penalties as the wrath of critics, the neglect of publishers, and a plethora of misprints on every page of every book.

“I myself was inducted by the late G.K. Chesterton, at that time president of the club. Alas, that these grim days of war and peace have put an end for the time to this sort of social fooling that does so much to bring people together and break down the barriers of distance and mistrust . . .”[5]


Anthony Boucher was a discerning critic of mystery writing, and he later wrote favorable reviews of Punshon’s novels The Conqueror Inn, Night’s Cloak, Secrets Can’t Be Kept, There’s a Reason for Everything and It Can Lead Anywhere. Boucher generally noted the length of the author’s novels (“not for the impatient”[6]) but praised their detailed construction and careful characterization.

“No fictional policeman deserves professional advancement more than solid, intelligent Bobby Owen.” Thus wrote Boucher in his review of There’s a Reason for Everything.[7] In that book, the twenty-first title featuring Bobby Owen, the policeman has reached the rank of Deputy Chief Constable of Wychshire County Police.

E. R. Punshon wrote thirty-five books featuring the level-headed and methodical Bobby Owen,[8] who begins his career as a constable in Information Received and by the final books in the series has risen through the ranks to become Commander at Scotland Yard.

Bobby Owen is well-educated, attractive, and not just a devoted policeman, but a devoted husband: his wife Olive appears with him in the stories, sometimes merely as the long-suffering but loving spouse of a hard-working sleuth. At other times, such as in Diabolic Candelabra, Olive becomes involved in her husband’s cases. Bobby Owen is a likeable character, friendly, firm but fair with his colleagues, and wise to the wiles of the criminal class. He has a sense of humor, he is sensitive to the subtle things around him, but he can also be a man of physical action when required by his job.

Triple Quest is the third Bobby Owen novel reprinted by Ramble House, preceded by The Golden Dagger (2009) and Diabolic Candelabra (2013). The republication of these three mysteries is long-overdue, since their original editions are uncommon. These three mysteries are also notable for showing a particular predilection of their sleuth: a love of Art.

In both The Golden Dagger and Diabolic Candelabra, the titular objets d’art are works of gold and silver, respectively, created by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). As with many of the works of art referred to by the author in these books the historical backgrounds of the artists and their work are sound, but the featured works appear to be inventions based on known works.

In The Golden Dagger, the art collection of Lord Rone includes paintings of “Dutch interiors”; one work in the collection is by Paul Potter (Paulus Potter, 1625-1654), entitled ‘The Young Stallion,’ apparently a companion to the painter’s ‘The Young Bull.’ Bobby Owen waxes lyrical to Lord Rone about ‘The Young Stallion’ (a spurious work) and impresses by his knowledge of ‘The Young Bull’ (a real work).

In Diabolic Candelabra, several fine works of art have gone missing from the estate of Sir Alfred Rawdon: the Cellini ‘Diabolic Candelabra’ and two paintings by El Greco (1541-1614). Bobby Owen happens to be visiting the district with his wife when these matters come to light, and his attention is immediately drawn when mention is made of the El Greco works—thus ensuring his determination to solve the case, both in the interests of the law and in the interests of artistic posterity.

The latter theme is continued in the penultimate Bobby Owen novel, Triple Quest. The South Bank Gallery, which is a central feature of that story and which the prefatory note stresses is a fictitious institution, essentially represents the great art galleries of London which E.R. Punshon undoubtedly knew. There is much discussion of art and artists, both classical and modern, in Triple Quest, again supporting Bobby Owen’s interest in the subject. This time the story focuses on the theft of a painting by Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669), another spurious work, entitled ‘Girl Peeling Apples.’[9] The following extract exemplifies Bobby Owen’s appreciation of art:


He decided to spend the lunch hour in a brisk walk across the river as far as the South Bank Gallery and have a look at the ‘Girl Peeling Apples,’ which, as he remembered well, had moved him strangely when he first saw it. Nor was there any thought in his mind of the excellent lunch served there in the celebrated Painted Chamber in the Gallery and not unworthy of attention even by those who had come to feast their eyes on the adjacent marvels of British and foreign art. Indeed why should not the stomach feast as well as the soul?

In the room in which it hung he sat down before it, ready to be once more caught up in that deep tumult of emotion no other painting had ever had the power to arouse in him—and not in him alone. For others had remarked that though neither in composition nor in colour, nor in the technique of the brushwork, nor even in his characteristic use of chiaroscuro, was this painting representative of the artist at his best, yet none the less in many people, though not in all, it produced a spiritual effect comparable to that experienced by many—though not by all—when listening to great music.


As well as being an admirer of art, Owen is something of an amateur artist himself, and at one point in the story his artistic skills play a small part in his pursuit of the case.


Apart from his two pseudonymous novels, E.R. Punshon devoted the period from 1933 to 1956 (the year of his death) to writing his Bobby Owen series of books. We may safely gather from this that he not only enjoyed the series characters that he had created (and that his readers likewise enjoyed the series), but that he also incorporated into these books some autobiographical details. There is presently no biographical evidence that the author was a lover of art, but in just the three books mentioned here there is a more-than-usual concentration on the subject of art and artists (especially Dutch Golden Age painters). This would suggest, at least, that E.R. Punshon enjoyed bringing his passionate interest in art and adding it to the other driving-force in his mysteries: the masterful creation of vividly-realised crime fiction.


Gavin L. O’Keefe

South Berwick, ME

May 2013




[1] E. R. Punshon reviewed some of Agatha Christie’s novels in The Guardian.

[2] 20 August 1933, publication unknown.

[3] Despite this glowing and repeated accolade, this use of the dust jacket design unfortunately deprived the readership of some memorable cover illustrations for the British editions of E. R. Punshon’s novels.

[4] The Anatomy of Murder: Famous Crimes Critically Considered by Members of The Detection Club, Bodley Head, 1936. This collection contains articles by seven members of The Detection Club in which they discuss actual celebrated murder cases. E.R. Punshon’s entry was ‘An Impression of the Landru Case.’

[5] San Francisco Chronicle, May 26, 1946. Quoted from The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary 1942-1947, edited by Francis M. Nevins (Ramble House, Vancleave, MS, 2005). p.113-114.

[6] ibid. p.191.

[7] ibid. p.263.

[8] E. R. Punshon’s short stories were published in a variety of periodicals and anthologies, and the character of Bobby Owen also appears in at least five short stories published in The Evening Standard.

[9] This fictitious work seems to be an amalgam of two actual Dutch paintings: ‘A Woman Peeling Apples’ (1663) is a painting by Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), and ‘Young Woman Peeling Apples’ (c.1655) is a painting by Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693). Maes was for a time a student of Rembrandt, and possibly also a teacher of de Hooch.