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…
The novels of Rupert Penny, published by Ramble House:
15 thoughts on “#20: Policeman’s Evidence (1938) by Rupert Penny”
I do love puzzles and classic crime – as opposed to character-driven Scandinavian pessimism – and any positive comparisons with Agatha Christie will definitely pique my interest. Thanks for the review; eagerly awaiting my copies of ‘Sealed Room Murder’ and ‘Policeman Evidence’ to arrive. 🙂
Evidently, Fender Tucker’s favourite titles are ‘She Had to Have Gas’ and ‘Cut and Run’.
Very interested to see what you make of this when you read it, Jonathan – keep me posted!
Thanks once again for the review; it was off the back of your recommendations that I ordered ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ and ‘Sealed Room Murder’. 🙂
I’ve just finished reading ‘Policeman’s Murder’, and beyond the momentary blindness induced by the incongruous shocking-pink cover – was that meant to be a ruby?! – I enjoyed the novel! I was also surprised by the narrative pacing and developing of the story, which would have been slightly slow if not for the fact that I found both narrators humorous. Tony, in particular, I enjoyed for his slightly waspish tone and perspective.
I don’t think I’ve covered the Golden Age as extensively as you have done, but I daresay the set-up for the central mystery was very clever. The premise and the solution tended towards, in my opinion, John Dickson Carr and possibly even Christianna Brand in ‘Death of Jezebel’. And as such they seem to be closer parallels, as opposed to Agatha Christie. I find that Christie’s mysteries tend to hinge on one or two ingenious twists, rather than on an intricately layered masterplan.
Thanks once again for your recommendation! In all likelihood I wouldn’t have managed to get my hands on Penny’s novels so soon if not for your blog. 🙂
Jonathan, I’m delighted to hear that your first experience with Penny was so positive; it’s true his pacing doesn’t seem to be the fastest, but I’m with you in appreciating his tone and the entertaining way he relays things (I’m also convinced there’s a lot more going on than one would necessarily think…). I think I’m going to go back to the start with him and review all his books in order, because there’s definitely an audience for him given the current vogue for classic crime. Will be interested in your thoughts on SRM, too, so let me know when you’ve read it.
And, generous though you are to massively over-presume the extent of my Golden Age reading, you have one distinct point on me: I’ve not yet tracked down a copy of Death of Jezebel!
Well, I’m totally getting this one JJ – brand new author for me – can’t wait (well, I will have to until Christmas I suspect!)
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When you get to this, I hope you enjoy it; Penny really has been my favourite find of the last few years, and the more people who know about him the better
Great review! It’s always a good moment when you find out about another Golden Age author you’ve never heard about and sounds like they’re worth tracking down (even if it doesn’t help your TBR pile).
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And even better when you can actually find the books! Mount TBR be damned…
ha ha… I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the books.
A copy of ‘Sealed Room Murder’ – with a shocking-green cover this time – is sitting on my shelf, awaiting reading. 🙂 But since ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ was bumped up in priority ahead of other titles, it might take some time before I get round to ‘Sealed Room Murder’. I’ll let you know what I think then.
‘Death of Jezebel’ is certainly worth tracking down – though the existing second-hand hard copies seem to be exorbitant… It struck me to be somewhat different from ‘Green for Danger’, which was also a good read.
I feel like the only person who doesn’t really go in for Green for Danger – it’s perfectly fine, but ultimately nothing special nor even terribly interesting. I enjoyed The Crooked Wreath much more, but since then her titles have been remarkably hard to come by (at sensible prices). Ah, well, all things to he who waits.
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