“If a man’s mind be wandering,” said Francis Bacon, “let him study the mathematics”. Well, the mathematics take up an unreasonably large amount of my time as it is, and for me nothing helps my wandering mind quite like classic detective fiction. So, with 2016 having been an underwhelming year in books so far, and coming back off a 2 month hiatus with my hand injury, I’m keen to get a bit of enthusiasm back into my reading. Hence I shall spend the next little while focussing on the sure-fire hits in my collection: expect much Max Afford, Leo Bruce, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Paul Halter and others, as well as some classic locked room nonplussing, in the weeks to come while I try to reorient myself within my chosen enthusiasm.
And there’s frankly no better place to start than with the wonderful Rupert Penny, pen name of Ernest Charles Basil Thornett and puzzle plotter extraordinnaire who has been brought back into print by the wonderful Ramble House. This is the second of Penny’s Chief-Inspector Edward Beale books, and concerns the death of a philanthropist and puzzle-writer found hanging by the neck from a tree in the Dorset woodland. Clearly it must be suicide, but the man was well-known locally and no motive for suicide can be unearthed. It seems an unlikley accident, however, so the only other option must be murder. Right? With the locals uncertain, Beale is asked to cancel the leave he has planned and head down to Dorset to investigate. And, of course, since his good friend Tony Purdon was due to go on holiday with him, he might as well tag along too…
Tony Purdon is one of my favourite narrators in crime fiction – unshowy enough to just get on an tell you the story, and yet realised in tiny moments of not quite wanting to dwell on his own flaws in a manner that’s far more charming than obnoxious (the golf trick here, for instance, or his being last on he scene at a moment of crisis because “I’m not very good at running”). Chapter 3, in which Beale and Purdon meet the people involved for the first time, is joyfully hilarious – full of the sharp corners of the characters cracking against each other at each turn and Purdon’s own internal monologue and dry observations – but this is then topped by the awful, dark comedy of the two investigators discussing with the dead man’s widow the various permutations of murder and suicide. The sheer amount of character-work done in these pages is staggering, and if it’s not quite picked up again in the same way it at least shows a versatility that is a huge step on from Penny’s debut.
Then the puzzling starts, and it’s so perfectly complex that you really have to just let it wash over you – the different coloured suits, the contradictions to the medical evidence, the who was where at which time, and the necessarily suspicious behaviour of just about everyone involved…here again is a huge leap from The Talkatvie Policeman – where that book rattled out staccato occurrences to be cleared up one by one, this stirs them into an unholy stew of resolving one only for further unanswered questions to arise. And it’s here that the character of Beale really shines: his astute and perceptive reasoning – at times he’s honest enough to admit that he’s simply guessing – carries you through the possible combinations, never losing sight of the fact that they are guesses, but usually coming out with something concrete by sheer weight of implication. Give this man one solid fact and, honestly, I’d put my money on him out-deducing Ellery Queen.
If there is a flaw in all this puzzling, it’s that the central plot – while beautifully complex if, perhaps inevitably, reliant on one large coincidence – lacks a clear “Oh my god!” moment on which you can hang how thoroughly hoodwinked you’ve been (compare it with his later Policeman’s Evidence, for instance, which ties its main moment of misdirection into the structure of the novel perfectly). And, hey, Penny does a marvellous job keeping the number of outlandish coincidences below two: plenty of other authors would allow them to stack up and up, but he builds spectacularly from that one point in a way that unfolds with pin-sharp precision come the explanation.
So, puzzle fans rejoice! If you like your plots complex, your characterisation on the dry side of subtle, your policemen human, and your clues fairly and liberally scattered, well, Penny is the man for you. What it lacks in streamlining at times, it more than makes up for in sheer fun and scope. If all classic detective fiction was this good, it would never have gone out of style in the first place…
1. The Talkative Policeman (1936) 2. Policeman’s Holiday (1937)
3. Policeman in Armour (1937)
4. The Lucky Policeman (1938)
5. Policeman’s Evidence (1938)
6. She Had To Have Gas (1939)
7. Sweet Poison (1940)
8. Sealed Room Murder (1941)
9. Cut and Run [writing as Martin Tanner] (1941)