Punshon's strengths include inventing imaginative mystery scenarios and effectively conjuring mood and setting in his stories. His proletariat policeman Bobby Owen, who rises in the ranks over the course of the series owing to his keen intelligence and quick actions, is a very likable figure, modest and earnest but also perceptive and intuitive in a winning way. (I haven't read any books in his earlier Carter & Bell series.) Even with these positive attributes, though, Punshon's prose can feel uninspired and repetitive, and his pacing is sometimes very slow, allowing the reader to get ahead of his plotlines.
I was curious to try a collection of his short stories published in 2015 by the great independent publisher Ramble House, Bobby Owen, Black Magic, Bloodshed, and Burglary. I'm very glad I did, because problems with pacing and prose disappear when the author shifts his focus from novels to short tales. There is a welcome mix of crime stories – five of them feature Owen, while the others allow the story to unfold from the criminal's or intended victim's point of view – and a handful of very entertaining weird tales exploring supernatural and spooky phenomena and the unlucky people whose lives change (or end) when they become entwined.
Experiencing these short pieces one after another, I was impressed with the creative variety of storylines on display, and with the attention Punshon pays to crafting a solid story in whichever genre he is practicing. Several of the collected stories were published in periodicals like The Strand Magazine and The Weekly Tale-Teller in the first decades of the 20th century, when both crime-themed tales and eerie ghost stories were in a sort of pre-pulp popular demand. (Thank you to Ramble House and editor Gavin O'Keefe for locating and assembling the unjustly neglected works.) The shorter format also shows Punshon's ability to be nimble and spare, whittling a story down to its essentials while still using enough description and scene-setting to ignite the reader's imagination.
All five Bobby Owen stories collected here were originally published in The Evening Standard, and they are uniformly good if not especially memorable. The horror stories in the following group fare better, and Punshon clearly knows how to use the genre elements to strong effect. While none of these stories breaks new thematic ground, the best of them are eerie, imaginative tales. The early "Little Red Devil", first published in 1904, shows the Faustian price to be paid for a writer driven to create horrible, transformational art; "The Living Stone" from 1939 would feel right at home in a Clive Barker anthology decades later, while stories like "The Long Lane" (1898) and "From Beyond the Barrier" (1911) recall the straightforward yet unsettling supernatural narratives of M.R. James.
The anthology also includes seven pieces collected as crime stories, and they vary in approach and tone. Liberated from the limitation to tell tales just from the policeman's perspective (as with the Bobby Owen shorts), these are fun, mischievous little stories of larceny and murder. "My Day of Vengeance" (1906) channels Poe's immortal "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) – indeed, it is the story of a murderer who must unexpectedly battle his conscience and keep hold of his sanity – and "The Miracle Worker" (1919), about a suburban couple falling for a charlatan of a spiritual medium, has the DNA of O. Henry in its blood.
The collection Bobby Owen, Black Magic, Bloodshed, and Burglary is an impressive testament to E.R. Punshon's care for crafting storylines, evoking mood, and telling a variety of tales. I am grateful that his work has been anthologized to avoid losing these stories to time, neglect, and indifference, which would be a shame. While I never got around to honoring E.R. Punshon with his own website, I am very happy to champion his writing in this review!