Quite frankly, the police were at a loss: a young man had disappeared and nobody seemed able to trace him. Even those whom you might have thought would be concerned, such as the young man's mother, didn't seem particularly eager to investigate what might have happened to him. And every lead that Inspector Bobby Owen, head of the tiny Wych County CID, tried to check wound up leading nowhere. "What it all comes to," said Bobby gloomily, "is a classic example of the blind man looking at midnight in a dark cellar for something that isn't there." It seemed as though everybody connected with the case had a secret to hide. But, as Bobby Owen points out on a number of occasions, "Secrets Can't be Kept." That's the title of E.R. Punshon's 1944 mystery featuring Bobby Owen which is the subject of today's review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
The more I read of E. R. Punshon’s mysteries, the more I find myself respecting him as a plotter, as a mood-setter, as a creator of interesting characters, and, overall, as a writer. His detective character, Bobby Owen, is quite endearing, with a charming wife, Olive, who often finds herself participating in her husband’s investigations. And while these mysteries are written in classic Golden Age style, with some nice satirical and humorous touches, there is often a definite darkness about the plots and about those characters which wouldn’t be at all out of place in some of today’s darker mysteries.
There’s a good deal of that on display in Secrets Can’t Be Kept. England is at war, a war that has produced significant hardships for the whole population of the country – and which has made even routine police investigations more difficult. A young man named Ned Bloom visits Inspector Bobby Owen in his office, seeking a job as a policeman…and claiming to have some important information to share with the authorities. But Ned Bloom was – in the language of those days – a cripple, a man with a deformed club foot. Bobby Owen can’t see any point in hiring someone who, physically, can’t do the job that police officers may be called upon to do. Ned Bloom storms out of the office, leaving Bobby Owen shaking his head.
But that same afternoon, the police receive three separate telephone calls at the police station – from three different women – each claiming to be Ned Bloom’s mother and asking if the young man has been to see the police. As for Ned himself – he has disappeared. And that’s a quandary for Bobby Owen, who feels that – whatever may have happened to Ned Bloom – he, Bobby, shares the responsibility by having dismissed him so quickly.
There’s plenty of evidence, too, that Ned Bloom had a real talent for learning other people’s secrets. And that can be a very dangerous pastime.
Secrets Can’t Be Kept, by E. R. Punshon, is an excellent page-turner of a book, with much darkness both in incident and in the telling, though nicely leavened with flashes of humor. Dean Street Press has published it in a new edition with both print and e-book versions, featuring an introduction by mystery scholar Curtis Evans. It's definitely worth your reading time.