If you’ve never bought a house on the questionable basis of a 300-year-old document implying the miserly, hunchbacked previous owner might possibly have hidden a marvellous treasure trove somewhere thereabouts, well, you must not be independently wealthy. You’ll also, then, have never invited various family and hangers-on down to said house to engage in a search invoking the types of ciphers that would give Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon a damp counterpane and – consequently – never had to deal with the aftermath of a suicide-that’s-probably-murder in a locked, treble-bolted and exitless room.
Thankfully for you, however, all these things happened to Major Francis Adair, and Tony Purdon and Chief-Inspector Edward Beale were on hand to relay it, albeit through the pen of Rupert Penny, the pseudonym of Ernest Basil Charles Thornett (who would go on to publish one book under another nom de plume, Martin Tanner – are you keeping up?). Policeman’s Evidence is the third of Penny’s novels, available thanks to the continued superlative efforts of Fender Tucker’s Ramble House, and it’s probably the most classically-constructed of his books that I’ve read, as involved and well-planned a puzzle as you’ll find from this era. An attack on a member of the household hints that a disgruntled ex-employee might be lurking suspiciously and with harmful intent, plenty of possibly-blameless-but-possibly-significant interactions occur, and everything is laid out with scrupulous fairness in time for the challenge to the reader to solve the puzzle before Beale lays his hand on the perpetrator.
Alongside the complications of the murder, Penny also has an eye for the finer points that delightfully round out the secondary threads of such a book – witness Beale’s scheme to both ensure the non-departure of his closed circle of suspects and justify his own continued presence for an investigation he’s keen to keep secret so as to not scare the guilty party away – and a rich seam of self-awareness is sewn through proceedings (seemingly a staple of pseudonymously-published crime fiction from the Golden Age – see also Leo Bruce, Edmund Crispin, Craig Rice, Kelley Roos, Alice Tilton, etc – and not one I have a problem with). When Beale takes over the first-person narrative from Purdon just before the halfway stage, he has a sly dig at the other’s more conversational, flippant prose style before saying of his own role that he’ll try “not to let it be duller than I can help”…it’s a lovely little passage of prose that underlines the difference between the two unshowily while acknowledging the need for a crime novel to entertain. It may seem an obvious point, books like this are written and read for entertainment purposes, but my reading of Georgette Heyer shows that this isn’t always carried through.
So you’ve got your big house, your baffling murder, your closed circle of suspects, your genius amateur, your dogged police detective…clearly Penny is operating in the true classic mould. It’s fair to say that he’s not breaking any boundaries of crime fiction, nor inventing any new conceits or adding some unseen wrinkle to the face of the genre (hmm, that metaphor doesn’t quite work), but this doesn’t mean that he has to be doing a poor job, either. You and I, we’ve read enough books to know that a collection of tropes doesn’t alone make a novel, and that those things which do are obviously a matter of subjectivity, but I commend Penny to anyone who goes in for a Golden Age puzzle; I’m so confident, I’ll even recommend the books of his I haven’t read. That can’t possibly backfire, can it?
He’s a delight for me because (warning, classsic author comparison approaching) his unfussy structures and prose remind me of Agatha Christie having even more fun (one character, hobbled by possibly imaginary undisclosed ailments, is typified early on for his excitements being provided by “an occasional blow-out of weak tea and steamed fish”). The occasional thread may be dropped or resolved in a hasty manner, but I’m happy to forgive this on account of the uncluttered nature of his plotting. And it’s hardly fair to comdemn an author for extending his reach a bit, but I’ll need to go back to his first book, The Talkative Policeman, to qualify that. The solution is intricate, beautifully-resolved and thoroughly satisfying, too, and contains one of my favourite pieces of misdirection from my last two years’ reading. Penny is in my front rank of unjustly-forgotten gems, and I’m hoping to convince others to discover him; if you love your puzzles and your classic crime then you could scarcely do much better with your time and money. And his entire catalogue is available, so once you love this one it’s easy to continue…