Hat theft isn’t the usual crime that Sergeant Bobby Owen has to deal with, but that’s what’s facing him, initially, in this instance. Lady Alice Belchamber has come into Bobby’s fiancée’s hat shop and walked out with the custom made hat intended for one Flora Tamar. Bobby is enlisted to first try and retrieve said hat and then, when unsuccessful, to apologise to Flora. But as you might expect, things don’t go quite as planned.
The Tamars’s butler, Munday, is found in the middle of nowhere, shot and then stabbed. With motives flying around all over the place, mostly involving suspected blackmail, Bobby finds himself enlisted to track down the killer. But which of the nine (well, eight) suspects is it?
Let’s start with the title, shall we? Eight suspects plus “person unknown” does not equal nine suspects. It equals eight suspects. And the notion of their being nine suspects only gets raised in the last fifth of the book. You expect from the title that it’s a crucial part of the story, but it is only raised at the end, and that’s only when Bobby conveniently starts putting his thoughts on paper and realises that their are eight of them, with the possibility of a passing tramp. It was nice of him to enumerate them so, as I’d lost the plot a little bit by then, but it really didn’t deserve to be rewarded in the title.
To clarify, that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book. I really like Punshon’s writing style (this is the twelfth Bobby Owen book, all of which have been reissued by Dean Street Press) and Bobby is an endearing character, as is Olive. I’ve come across him before in Crossword Mystery (Book 3), Death Comes To Cambers (Book 6) and Comes A Stranger (Book 11), and Punshon has really found Bobby’s voice now. Unflappable, in public at least, when faced with some of the sort of characters that could give the Lampreys a run for their money, I almost found myself cheering him on at times. And the sequence where he calmly accepts one suspect’s offer of a boxing match, only to discover that said suspect has something of a pedigree in said sport, is very well done. The background detail is enticing here – published in 1939, Europe is in the shadow of war and little flashes of dialogue make clear the setting.
Oh, and was it a joke to have a bloke known as Judy and a woman known as Ernie? I appreciate the second one, short for Ernestine (cruel parents, obviously) but who shortens Julius to Judy? Grrr…
But the plot does drag somewhat. Bouncing around from one suspect to another, the killer could really have been anyone. Yes, there are clues there in the conversations (one chapter is actually called MORE CONVERSATIONS) but a tweak could have given a different killer. I think the other Punshons that I’ve read had better plots, but the writing wasn’t as engrossing as this one.
So I’m a little divided on this one – I enjoyed it, but it’s rapidly fading from my memory. Well Worth A Look, but I wouldn’t make it your first visit with Bobby.
As with all of the Dean St Press reprints, it’s available at a pittance on ebook and at slightly more than a pittance in paperback. Many thanks again to Dean St Press for these re-issues.