Aaah, Christmas. A time for cheer, goodwill to all men, on-trend ironic jumpers and spending time with the people you love. Look around the crime fiction blogosphere and these loved ones include a tremendous number of murderers, victims, stooges, detectives and classic authors, and so for me the time is ripe for a return to my overriding obsessions: this week it’s Ernest Basil Charles Thornett’s turn as his debut under the guise of Rupert Penny with The Talkative Policeman. And of course it’s a return to impossible crimes after a couple of weeks away with what the synopsis calls a “longer-than-usual impossible mystery,” and since Penny has written a couple of absolute doozys in this vein an extra bt of content is only to be a cause for celebration. Clap hands. Settle in. Let’s go.
This was the second Penny I read after the wonderful Sealed Room Murder, and it’s fair to say that despite loving that I approached his debut with a little caution. The puzzle plot is not something one typically excels at upon first attempt, so expecting the same level of craft from this tale of a blameless rural vicar found battered over the head in the woodland near his home would probably be unwise. And while it may be true that the plot doesn’t quite hold up – we’ll get to that – there is enough quality here to see the germ of the author Penny would become.
He comes across as very playful and inventive, throwing out jokes about etymology, a beautifully (and possibly overly) technical discussion on the workings of fingerprints, some engagingly doggerel verse, and a very clever murder for which there honestly seems to be no motive. He also created a fabulous first-time main character in Chief-Inspector Edward Beale, necessarily adamantine in his determination to catch the killer but also full enough of foibles and tiny touches of sarcasm to feel like a real person without it ever being jammed down your neck just how much of a Real Person he is:
“Hullo,” said Beale. “Anything doing?”
“Not a thing, sir – not a smell of a fingerprint anywhere.”
“I thought there mightn’t be,” replied the Inspector equably.
Matthews sighed. “It’s a hard life. Fingerprints are to me pretty nearly what a babe is to the mother who bore it.”
Tiny moments of graceful subtlety shine through – such as how Beale ensures they won’t be overheard discussing the case when they repair to the lounge of the pub they’re staying in – and even Penny’s descriptions carry a lightness of touch on his first time out, such as the game-keeper, typified as:
[A] weather-beaten man of middle age whose double-barrelled gun, tucked snugly under his arm, seemed to be part of him; one could imagine, thought Tony, that he has been born with it there, much diminished in size, and that they had grown up together.
There is also a lovely degree of invention in his structure, with maps (yay!), newspaper articles, train timetables (just the one, mind, for those of you still reeling from the return of Inspector French to our bookshelves), and the most delightful Challenge to the Reader I’ve ever read all playing their part in his telling (and it’s superbly presented in facsimile, too). Of course there’s the requisite amount of contortion that must be allowed for this kind of story to be told – Tony Purdon wouldn’t be allowed to tag along just because he wants to watch his friend work on a case, for one – but it’s not like any tawdry tricks are rendered necessary by these sorts of touches, and if that kind of thing is going to take you out of a narrative then you’re reading the wrong genre anyway.
However, as I say, the puzzle plot is a tricky beast, and Penny inevitably fails to tame it fully on this first attempt. The occurrences of the plot have a very staccato feel to them – as if rattled out to provide the necessary detail – and the absence of a smooth flow is a bit disorienting when trying to keep his impressively detailed milieu straight in your head. Some superb extended pieces of prose – the rumination on why the crime can’t be the work of a maniac, for one – are much welcomed for the relief they provide, but also throw into sharper contrast the sudden barrage of events when it starts up again. And the summing up at the end – where, by crikey, doesn’t Beale ever earn that titular adjective – is both rather verbose and unfortunately lacking in the devastating surprise I was expecting: while I didn’t catch his guilty party, it’s partly because I had my own one in mind and expected that to be the twist…but, no, there simply is no twist. There’s also – and this isn’t anything against the book, of course – no impossibility, despite what it says in the synopsis. There’s easily enough here to warrant your time and attention anyway, but I’d hate anyone to get to the end and be livid about this, and so I mention it.
Penny went on to write better and the genre has produced better, but if you’ve read him elsewhere and are willing to allow some leeway this is a very diverting and impressively rigorous first stab, batter, hide, misdirect, and baffle. The complexity of the plot he has going here commends it above the usual, and anyone who likes a convoluted puzzle will frankly be in hog heaven.