An elusive recipe for chocolates. An even-more elusive hermit. A missing axe. A little girl who apparently talks to forest animals. Some missing paintings by the master artist, El Greco. And a most peculiar candelabra, reportedly the work of the great silversmith Benvenuto Cellini, with the faces of demons carved into the design. A very odd collection indeed. But were there, amid the clutter, clues to a couple of disappearances that just might be murder?
This strange world is created by E. R. Punshon in his 1942 book, Diabolic Candelabra. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.
The book begins with the local police inspector, Bobby Owen, and his wife, Olive, trying to do a favor for a friend, who is organizing a church bazaar. The friend wants to contact a young woman who lives in a house in the nearby forest, to see if she would be willing to donate an assortment of her chocolate candies which are made with a new and secret recipe.
So Olive and her police inspector husband set out for the forest – rather like Hansel and Gretel, I suppose. And what they encounter could come right out of one of the Grimm Brothers' nastier creations: a whole collection of singular events, including the disappearance of a very reclusive hermit and his axe. Then, there’s another disappearance, this time of a local businessman who is also involved in the sale of those chocolates – although there’s no real indication that the recipe has anything to do with the case.
And there are more odd turns, including bloodstains on the floor of the hermit’s shack. There's a strange little girl, named Loo, the younger sister of the woman who makes the candies, a child far more at home in the forest, talking to the animals, than she is in her house with her mother and sister. Oh, and of course her evil stepfather, who is terrified that his older stepdaughter will – again – lock him in the cellar and refuse to let him out. And don’t forget the local squire and his family – on the verge of rather genteel poverty, they may be looking for possible family heirlooms: some paintings by the great El Greco and that very peculiar and rather horrifying candelabra said to have been made by Cellini.
It makes for a lot of diverse story threads, but Punshon juggles them skillfully, providing tantalizing glimpses to his readers of SOMETHING - some larger plan - in the background. The characters are distinctive and memorable; I am particularly fond of that young girl who apparently talks to animals. There are also some fine thriller elements, including a marvelous climactic struggle in a hidden cave.
Critic Nick Fuller calls E. R. Punshon "one of the most shamefully neglected writers of detective fiction." Based on Diabolic Candelabra, that sounds pretty accurate to me. I recommend it highly - but hang on as you read; it's likely to be a bumpy ride...
UPDATED FEBRUARY 1: I neglected to link this post to this year's Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge at the My Reader's Block blog. The challenge this year is to fill our "Bingo" - type cards with vintage mysteries (Gold = pre-1960 or Silver = 1961-1980) mysteries. On my Gold card, this book counts os "one book with a 'spooky' title. I recommend the list you'll find at the above link for some very good reading among the vintage classics.