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Authors: E.R. Punshon

Mystery Villa

E.R. PUNSHON
Mystery Villa

Con Conway, the notorious cat burglar, was not the kind of person to be scared out of his wits for nothing. So it seemed odd to Sergeant Bobby Owen, when he met Con quite by chance rushing, terrified, along a road in the Brush Hill district just before midnight. Afterwards he investigated the house where it seemed Conway had been, yet there was nothing, not a shred of evidence to suggest that swag had been hidden there or taken from there.

It was a strange place, Tudor Lodge; it had an eerie atmosphere and disturbing associations. Twice Sergeant Owen returned to look it over but all he encountered was a very pretty and very frightened girl. Finally he found in the house a murdered man – murdered years ago. Yet still he could not make out why Conway had been quite so frightened – until he went to work in earnest on the job.

Mystery Villa
is the fourth of E.R. Punshon's acclaimed Bobby Owen mysteries, first published in 1934 and part of a series which eventually spanned thirty-five novels.

INTRODUCTION

By the time of Bobby Owen's fourth murder case, recorded in the atmospheric
Mystery Villa
(1934), E.R. Punshon's police detective had been promoted in rank, owing to his performance in the extraordinary affair of the
Crossword Mystery
(1934), from Constable to Sergeant. Bobby Owen eventually would serve as series sleuth in 35 Punshon detective novels, published between 1933 and the year of the author's death in 1956, having taken a highly visible place of honor in the pantheon of fictional British police detectives. Today, it must be admitted, the historical significance of Bobby Owen, and the novels in which he appears, are less known to the mystery reading public. This unmerited neglect of a one-time Golden Age critical and fan favorite should be remedied with the ongoing reissuing by Dean Street Press of the entire series of Bobby Owen detective novels. 

The period between First and Second World Wars is known as the Golden Age of detective fiction. It is, for many, the great era of the amateur sleuth, when gentlemen geniuses like Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance gamboled over the bloody plains of murder, nonchalantly dropping their g's and screwing in their monocles while collaring not-quite-clever-enough crooks. However quite a number of professional policemen acted as lead detectives in long-running and extremely popular mystery series during the Golden Age. Some of the better-known ones, such as Freeman Wills Crofts's Inspector Joseph French and GDH and Margaret Cole's Superintendent Henry Wilson, “came of respectable, but impecunious, middle-class parents,” as Margaret Cole put it with reference to Superintendent Wilson; but others, like Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn as well as Henry Wade's Inspector John Poole and Punshon's Bobby Owen, sprang from altogether more privileged circumstances. Alleyn was the last of this high-end trio to appear in print, in Ngaio Marsh's debut detective novel,
A Man Lay Dead
, in 1934. Inspector Poole preceded Alleyn into fictional life by five years, in
The Duke of York's Steps
, while Bobby Owen just beat Alleyn to the presses, featuring first in 1933's
Information Received
.

Bobby Owen differed from both Alleyn and Poole, however, in that devoted readers of Punshon's detective series, which ran for nearly a quarter-century, were able to witness Bobby's rise through the ranks, from a lowly Police Constable to a lofty Commander of Scotland Yard (“the word “bobby,” it should be mentioned for non-British readers, is British slang for a police officer). In this respect the fictional police detective whom Bobby Owen most resembles is a cop created by Sir Basil Thomson named Richardson, who appeared in a short-lived though well-received series of eight detective novels that debuted, like the Bobby Owen series, in 1933, and ended in 1937, upon Thomson's death. Like Bobby Owen, Richardson commenced his fictional career as a stalwart Police Constable and rose through the ranks over the course of the series, ending up a Chief Constable in the last two books (no doubt even greater glory lay in store for Richardson, had Sir Basil not passed away in 1937). Yet there is a fellowship that the reader feels with Bobby Owen—no doubt encouraged by the author's tendency to call him “Bobby” rather than “Owen” in the novels—which is lacking with the rather stolid series policeman created by Thomson (who was, it should be noted, former head of both Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigation Department and the Special Branch). The reader grows to like Bobby and to follow his developing career and life with a sympathetic interest—surely a sterling testament, as Dorothy L. Sayers noted in her crime fiction reviews in the
Sunday Times
, to the unique humanity and charm in E.R. Punshon's fiction writing.

It is Bobby's sympathetic interest in others, particularly the decade's downtrodden and dispossessed, which leads to his uncovering of the horrific deeds done in
Mystery Villa
. Now Sergeant Bobby Owen, B.A. (Oxon. pass degree only), he becomes intensely concerned with the fate of a reclusive elderly woman names Miss Barton, who lives alone in squalor in her old house, Tudor Lodge, located in “the sedate, desperately decorous, highly respectable, slowly decaying suburb of Brush Hill, once a favorite home of prosperous City merchants, but now so derelict it had not one single block of up-to-date miniature luxury flats to boast of, nor even so much, in all its borders, as a county council estate of dolls' houses for workers.” Bobby's pity is piqued when he hears about Miss Barton, causing him to reflect, in words resonating today, that “here and there in London, as in almost all big towns indeed, are strange old people, living strange, aloof, solitary lives, hermits amidst crowds, lone islands in the midst of the vast flowing tides of modern city populations.”

Having become curious about the sudden influx of visitors to Tudor Lodge (including, it appears, a notorious cat burglar named Con Conway), Bobby proceeds to make inquiries that ultimately propel him and his mentor Superintendent Mitchell into an exceptionally lurid murder case, one with distinct literary echoes of Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Faulkner. In her rave review of
Mystery Villa
in the
Sunday Times
, Dorothy L. Sayers conceded that inevitably readers would discern similarity between Punshon's Miss Barton and Dickens's Miss Havisham, but she declared that in her view “the honours are with Mr. Punshon.” Sayers pronounced that in
Mystery Villa
, in contrast with
Great Expectations
, “we have the real thing—real solitude, real filth, real starvation of mind and body, with a real and ghastly necessity underlying the whole horrible superstructure of unreason.” She concluded that with
Mystery Villa
Punshon had found a “superb subject for a mystery,” and that he “handled it superbly.”

Unaccountably, Punshon's impressive
Mystery Villa
was passed over by American publishers, although in Britain the novel was published by Gollancz, Punshon having earlier in the year jumped ship from Ernest Benn to this highly-reputed firm, along with two other notable British detective novelists, J.J. Connington and Dorothy L. Sayers herself. Punshon would remain with Gollancz for the rest of his life, although his American publishing record would be spottier.
Mystery Villa
itself was reprinted just once, in paperback by Penguin in 1950. Its reappearance after sixty-five years is a welcome event indeed.

CHAPTER ONE
Con Conway's Terror

Sergeant Bobby Owen, B.A. (Oxon. pass degree only), recently promoted as a reward for what his superiors considered good work accomplished, realised abruptly that he had missed his way, and, simultaneously, that it was beginning to rain.

Both facts annoyed him; the first, because it would probably mean missing the last train from Brush Hill station to Baker Street; the second, because it might necessitate unrolling the beautifully neat, gold-mounted, brand-new, silk umbrella he had treated himself to that very day, for he knew that a plain-clothes C.I.D. man should always make a good impression, and he understood well how universally a man is judged by the umbrella he carries.

However, this last necessity was not upon him yet, for the warning rain-drops ceased as suddenly as they had begun. But there remained his doubt concerning the best way to take whereby to reach the railway station.

At Brush Hill police-station, which he had been visiting in connection with some not very important bit of routine business and had left only a few minutes ago, he had been given clear enough directions for finding his way to the railway, since the buses whereby he had journeyed down from the Yard would at this hour have ceased running for the night. But somehow he had gone astray.

By the light of a street lamp near, he made out that he was in Windsor Crescent, and was none the wiser for the knowledge, since he had no idea how Windsor Crescent stood in relation to the railway station, nor at this late hour did there seem a single soul abroad in all the sedate, desperately decorous, highly respectable, slowly decaying suburb of Brush Hill, once a favourite home of prosperous City merchants, but now so derelict it had not one single block of up-to-date miniature luxury flats to boast of, nor even so much, in all its borders, as a county council estate of dolls' houses for workers.

Perplexed, Bobby stood at the corner of Windsor Crescent where Balmoral Grove cuts it at right angles on the way to join Osborne Terrace, and watched two cats prowl, sinister and swift and silent, across the road – but silent not for long, since, a moment later, there came from one of them a long, ear-splitting, nerve-piercing, sleep-destroying howl, a little like the product of a circular saw undergoing thumbscrew treatment in some machinist inquisition. Instinctively Bobby's eyes went searching for the stone we have the warrant of the poet for believing it is a proper man's first impulse to heave at any cat in sight, and then upon the silence following that fierce feline howl broke the sound of running footsteps, as there fled the length of the Crescent one who seemed driven by some dreadful fear.

Bobby stiffened to attention. It seemed to him there was a quality of terror needing investigation in those uneven, rushing, running steps whereof the sound troubled so suddenly and strangely the quiet of the suburban night. No man, he told himself, ran like that, save for bitter need.

He stood back a little into the shadow cast by the house near which he had paused. He could see now, by the dim light of the street lamps, the dim figure of the approaching runner. None pursued, it seemed, and somehow that gave an added terror and a keener poignancy to this unfollowed flight through the indifferent darkness. Nearer the fugitive came, and nearer still, still running in the same wild, panic-driven manner, and, when he was so near he was about to pass, Bobby shot out a long arm and caught him by the collar.

‘What's up?' he began; and then, with extreme surprise, ‘Good Lord, why it's Con Conway.'

The startled scream the fugitive had been about to utter died away. He was a wizened shrimp of a man, undersized, pale faced, and now he hung limp in Bobby's grasp, rather like a captured rabbit held out at arm's length by a gypsy trapper. He was trembling violently, either with fear or from the extreme physical exertion he had been making; the perspiration was running down his cheeks, whether from terror or from effort; his breath came in great, wheezing gasps, till at last he managed to pant out:

‘Lor' blimey, guv'nor... s'elp me, if ever I thought to be glad to meet a ruddy dick.'

‘Meaning me?' asked Bobby.

‘Meaning you, Mr Owen, sir,' Con Conway agreed; ‘and no offence meant, so hoping none took neither.'

‘Oh, none,' agreed Bobby pleasantly. ‘Only I'm wondering, Conway, if you're really so very glad to meet me, for you know you seemed in the dickens of a hurry, and I'm rather wondering why.'

‘Mr Owen, sir,' Conway assured Bobby earnestly, ‘I was gladder to see you than ever I was to see the bookie still there after I had backed the winner at long odds.'

‘That so?' said Bobby, with some doubt, and yet impressed by the strength and fervour of this declaration.

As he spoke he leaned his umbrella against the garden railing by which they were standing, and, still holding Con Conway with one hand, ran the other lightly over him. Conway, who knew the significance of this gesture well enough, submitted meekly, merely remarking:

‘You won't find no tools on me, guv'nor.'

‘I didn't much expect to,' retorted Bobby, for Mr Conway was an expert of that species of the genus burglar known as the ‘cat' variety, and had no need of any aid but his natural talents and his painfully acquired technique for swarming up the gutter-pipe that seemed to pass near some conveniently open window. From his own pocket Bobby produced a small electric torch, and flashed its light on the other's knees and elbows. ‘Doing a bit of climbing lately?' he asked, for both knees and elbows showed certain suspicious signs of dust and dirt.

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