A man prone to bouts of lunacy escapes in unusual circumstances from the private sanatorium where he is a resident, and shortly thereafter a series of murders are committed, the left shoe removed from each victim…well, you join the dots. And yet, can it really be that simple? Ordinary GAD rules say no, but this is Rupert Penny, puzzle-maker par excellence, and thus such easy prehension could be both a feint and the actual intended explanation. So Scotland Yard’s Chief-Inspector Edward Beale is dispatched and brings amateur hanger-on Tony Purdon and Sergeant ‘Horsey’ Matthews with him, a crime-solving triumvirate likely to have even Inspector Joseph French quailing jealously at their ability to unpick complex schemes.
Post number 300 — woo, get me — and it’s a return to one of my favourite discoveries of recent years: the Gordian knot that is Penny’s particular brand of plotting, enriched as it is by a Norman Berrow-esque talent for sly observation that stops the intellect on display making everything a bit too Early Queen to be enjoyable. Admit it, the Queens would never have their sleuths ordering beer from a waiter in a low-rent pub-cum-hotel in this manner:
He eyed them pessimistically, pocketed the coin without interest, flicked the largest crumb on the table into Tony’s lap, and slowly took himself away by the longest possible route. When they grew tired of waiting, Dickie went to fetch the beer himself.
Elsewhere, Tony’s awed response to a local character’s lunch, or the description of an old woman “whose false teeth were notably some dentist’s failure”, or the local busybody flustering out of scene and leaving behind “an impression of good natured commonness momentarily encountered” belie the claims of dullard prose that might conceivably be leveled at these pure-plot undertakings, but as ever such denegations are in the eye of the beholder. For me there’s a wonderful humanity at the heart of Penny’s writing that reminds me, here especially, of Christie in his use of types that might — or might not — be used to lull you into false trust.
But, well, in fairness it might just be that Penny is putting more time into this sort of thing now. An early chapter details the workings of a country house where a future victim lives, as we follow them through a series of actions that end in their death. Then, the later discovery of that body is shot through with pathos (“he turned away, revolted, and walked apart from the rest as steadily as he could”) that is felt a touch more keenly for having seen into their life. It’s uncommon enough in this genre, and part of how Penny distinguishes himself for me. Elsewhere, and having recently discussed on this blog the apparent absence of the First World War from a lot of GAD, we get a policeman searching the woods for the escaped madman who reflects that jumping at shadows is “no way for a man to behave who had sat for two hours in a shell-hole in no man’s land dodging machine gun bullets”. Nothing more is done with that, but it’s again an uncommon moment in this sort of undertaking.
And it helps that Beale and Purdon, at the heart of it all, feel so much like actual people who know each other and their jobs well. For all Beale’s carting his amateur friend around to all manner of crime scenes, “the professional was in a different and far higher class” — witness the moment when, having listened at length to the very plausible theories of one character, Beale is not afraid in his own mind to label them “a stupid mixture of hasty suspicions and violent imaginings, backed up by very little in the way of convincing evidence”. Rarely would your GAD police sleuth be this savage — if only in private — and it betokens the weariness and sense of futility Beale feels, yes, but also shows his commitment to the rigour that makes him so good at what he does.
And the plot? Well, it is of course very clever. We benefit from things unfolding in a deliberate way so as not to bombard you with a list of seventeen objects, the fifth and eighth of which are relevant, and I still doubt you’ll pick the guilty party. Beale’s self-censure come the end that gives the book its title is perhaps a little unearned — like the best puzzle plots, it’s obvious in retrospect — especially given the classical lines along which this unfolds. It lacks a truly stellar hook to sweep you away, but for construction and commitment alongside growth as an author this is pretty hard to fault. It may even be the best place to start for anyone who is thinking of giving Penny a go — in lieu of an impossibility, the range of complications to be faced is a great primer in how to set up and resolve such issues. And, once again, come the Challenge to the Reader you do actually possess the knowledge to solve the thing.
I bloody well bet that you don’t, though…