And then there were none…
The Swansong of E. R. Punshon & Bobby Owen
Six Were Present was the final novel by E. R. Punshon, and the last in his Bobby Owen series.
The original edition of the book is dated 1956, though the book seems to have been released the following year. Punshon passed away at the age of 84 in late 1956, and this may have given Gollancz, his publishers, cause to postpone the publication. Thus, the author’s last novel was released posthumously.
Given that Punshon devoted the latter part of his writing career to his series of novels and stories featuring Bobby Owen, it is fitting that the author’s last book provides us with a final case for his masterful and likeable sleuth. Over thirty-five novels and five short stories, we are able to accompany Bobby Owen from the time he was inspired to join the police force, thence upwards through the ranks until he reaches the lofty position of Commander at Scotland Yard. Yet, through to the very end, Owen stays true to his methodical and incisive investigatorial approach to crime-solving and at the same time upholds his admirable ethics and sense of humour. It is not hard to see why E. R. Punshon’s series was so long—and why the Bobby Owen stories are still popular today.
It is tempting to speculate on whether Punshon knew that Six Were Present was to be his and Owen’s swansong—because so many things in this novel seem to combine to bring Bobby Owen’s whole life together at a ‘twilight moment.’
The story begins with Bobby and his wife Olive on a driving holiday, and they will visit Bobby’s cousin who has written to him because she is worried about something (and Olive and we readers know that that means Bobby will shortly not be doing any holidaying!).
So, Bobby is reunited with a cousin he hasn’t seen since they were children playing together on the property Constant Freres, where the mystery takes place. Spending time with his cousin, her husband, and their daughter (Owen’s second cousin) in a place that evokes childhood memories—and accompanied by his wife at the beginning of the novel—suggests a kind of ‘homecoming’ for Owen; or, at least, strands from the past and present meeting, but with the future uncertain.
Not wanting to spoil the story, what can be said is that there is an intriguing element of the supernatural in the story, with Bobby confronted in the course of his investigation with the possibility of voices from ‘beyond’ in séances and exotic curses.
His second cousin tells him that an African witch-doctor told her, “By death set free,” which she later modifies to “Through death set free.” This expression haunts Bobby Owen from then on, and perhaps for more reasons than the obvious.
Later, there is an intriguing speech by Nixon, the West Midshire Chief Constable with whom Bobby is working on the case:
“Lots of men turn author when they retire—make a jolly good thing of it too. ‘The Reminiscences of Bobby Owen.’ Should go down well, and keep you busy when you retire.”
This little tidbit is tantalizing in several ways, not the least if it is interpreted as holding a subtext pertaining to E.R. Punshon’s own career as a writer, and, more specifically, as a writer of police procedural mysteries.
We can speculate about the subtle messages that might be woven through this final Bobby Owen novel, but one thing is certain: this is a strangely thought-provoking mystery, and a poignant ‘conclusion’ to the careers of Ernest Robertson Punshon and Commander Robert ‘Bobby’ Owen.
Gavin L. O’Keefe
South Berwick, ME