I am swiftly approaching the point where I will be reluctant to read any more Rupert Penny; he published a mere nine books, of which Policeman in Armour is the fifth I’ve read, and I don’t want to find myself in a situation where there’s no new Rupert Penny to pick up and lose myself in. I still have plenty to be getting on with — half of Carr, 10 Christies, 17 Berrows, countless undiscovered gems — but Penny holds a special significance for me because he is such a superb classicist and produced detective plots that walk the fine line between several stools without tripping and getting trapped between any of them (I apologise for any pain that mixed metaphor may have caused you).
This is about a pure Golden Age detection as you can get — a man is discovered dead on the eleventh page, his killer named on the 209th, and joining these two points is the kind of thorough, intelligent jubilee of an investigation that chases down every single lead and loose end in a brilliantly rigorous way. Penny gives you a baffling murder — a man stabbed in the back in a room which no-one could have entered and exited without being seen or heard — and then sets about working his way through the possibilities without needing to throw in Exciting Incidents that dilute and weaken his focus. No second or third murders spice things up, no overwhelming coincidences crop up to explain away certain actions or push the plot forrader, we simply explore this seeming impossibility and the surrounding mysterious events with a steady head and the clear-sighted awesomeness of Chief Inspector Edward Beale steering the way.
Beale and his cohorts — jack of all trades Sergeant ‘Horsey’ Matthews and amateur hanger-on Tony Purdon — are one of the key things that set these books apart. They are serious and intelligent men who go about their business in a quick-witted and insightful manner: Beale in particular is a fabulous blend of inspired insight and banging-his-head-against-a-wall doggedness, feeling both a realistic and reassuring presence to have at the head of such an unconventional setup. And they’re funny, too, but not in that Craig Rice/Kelley Roos way that seems beyond he scope of mere mortals; they’re funny in the way normal people are quick with a witticism, or with a sharp turn of wry disparagement:
“Come to inspect the gas meter, [ma’am],” said Tony.
“Which of us do you mean by that?”
“I said meter, not bag.”
“She’s probably engaged.”
“She wasn’t wearing a ring,” said his friend.
“Bah! You talk like a Victorian grandmother,” rejoined Beale rudely. “No ring, no engagement — no heavy mourning, no regret. Nothing counts if it doesn’t show, and if I balanced half a crown on my head I’d be half a king.”
The plot is very clever — there’s a certain amount of who-was-where-when at the start, but stick with it — and I kicked myself when it was all laid out, which (let’s be honest) is what we want to happen in this kind of thing. But what it undoubtedly lacks is razzamatazz; you will find none of Christie’s surprisingly sudden twists of circumstance, nor Carr’s eye for an immediately arresting setup, and in this regard is very much one for the aficionado rather than the dabbler. But, oh, you aficionadae will have a field day here. The investigation is note-perfect, with plenty of room for rumination and speculation (at the halfway point, Beale outlines the case against the person who seems the only obvious suspect and then dismantles it beautifully in the next breath), and those of you for who these purlieus of detective fiction are regular hunting grounds will encounter many delights.
There’s definitely a further-increased clarity of plot here in progression from previous book Policeman’s Holiday, and Penny is developing some picturesque turns of phrase: “More policemen have been taken in by and honest-looking pair of eyes than crooks have been by and honest-looking pair of policemen” and the description of a reluctant witness who “would draw even further into herself, leaving him like a dog with a rolled-up hedgehog” being among my favourites. It’s true that there is again no single moment where you can look back and slap yourself for being well and truly hoodwinked, but he does lead you astray with an assumption so carefully placed that I missed it until it was spelled out to me (possibly that’s just me being dim, though…), and I’m becoming quite a fan of this form of misdirection. And the scheme is easy enough to understand once you see it, and I’m with Penny when he supposes in his Challenge to the Reader that perhaps one person in a hundred might figure this out ahead of time. Very clever stuff, with all the clues there to see.
So, well, it’s not really tapping into the current zeitgeist for light and breezy detective fiction, and I wouldn’t start here with Penny unless you’re willing to give him at least two books sight unseen, but I do heartily and fully recommend it all the same. Goddamn I wish there was more of this sort of stuff available; it’s precisely this kind of experience that makes me persevere through the Obelists Fly Highs of this world, and there’s just not enough brilliant, misleading, fair-play detective fiction around any more. Well, here’s hoping this is a sign of things to come in 2017 (it’s okay, I know it isn’t…).