I consider Rupert Penny to be in the front rank of GAD authors I have stumbled over, and yet have somehow gone a full year without reading anything by him. So let’s get things rolling with the very un-Pennyian structuring trick that’s now de rigeur in modern crime fiction — Two Seemingly Independent Threads That Shockingly Turn Out To Be Linked: the vanishing of a possibly-dead lodger from her room and the near-simultaneous disappearance of a young woman following a financial demand from an ex-lover to not reveal compromising letters she sent him. Seriously, where would blackmailers be without the Royal Mail?
Soon, however, things take an even more sinister turn, with a mutilated body — surprisingly graphic for the time — turning up. And if you’re worried that Penny, one of the most accomplished puzzle plotters the genre ever produced, is trying to amateurishly slide some identity gambit past you…well, firstly have a little faith, and secondly the famous mystery novelist Charles Digby Harrington is on hand to remind you that “a murder hardly counts unless there’s some such trick in it”:
“You make your corpse appear to have been executed with a rusty battle-axe in Piccadilly Circus on All Souls’ Day by an armless man in Nova Scotia at the same time, whereas in fact it was suffocated in a tub of self-raising flour on board a Channel steamer the previous Christmas.”
There’s plenty here, too, by way of details that delight the Era Nerd in me: chapter 7 alone gives us the chances of being able to tell that a house is wired with electricity, the possibility of it not being fitted with gas, and a lecture on the proportion of carbon monoxide in various gases to aid with identification in the event of suffocation. The detail, too, in the composition of the leuco-malachite blood test might seem like Humdrum drudgery of the highest order, but it’s facinating to think that this was an era when such things couldn’t just be taken for granted and so Penny is in fact giving basis to his methods and their consequent conclusions. And the book is equally rich in contemporary exclamations like a greengrocer summed up unfavourably as “a devil of a fellow with a bag of raisins, I bet”, a criminal type who “could sell a pair of bellow to a one-handed man with central heating”, and the confident claim that “once-a-weeker’s don’t choose Wednesdays” when their rent includes a lone weekly bath.
Character-wise, Penny is also a complete delight: Chief-Inspector Edward Beale is here once again to bring his effortless humanity to the confusion on display — the moment he declares Shakespeare “too dead to interest me as a case of doubtful identity” is Beale through and through — and engage in easy badinage with amateur hanger-on Tony Purdon over the latter’s occasional theories and forays into detection. It’s a tiny cast when you come down to things, but even inside that little moments shine out with Penny’s pointed subtlety — such as the detail-oriented local Inspector Creevy being so disappointed at having overlooked a trifle “Tony half expected him to reduce himself there and then to the rank of sergeant” — and Harrington is utilised to great effect in commentary on the detection genre in general:
“If you could persuade one of us — Bailey or Sayers or Christie, MacDonald or Ellery Queen or Carter Dickson, to go out and do a real murder with real knives and bullets and blood and prussic acid, I bet it would be a flop. Or make ’em do one apiece, and you wouldn’t get more than a hint of artistry in the lot.”
And, of course, Penny gets away with this because his own plot is magnificent, full of brilliant deduction — there’s a moment about the removal of stockings to establish the condition of a woman’s feet that’s both breath-takingly simple and wonderfully insightful — and able to spin the complexities and detail involved in the various crimes encountered in ever-complex and ever-baffling patterns: it’s a sleek labrador chasing its tail, with a hugely impressive absence of extraneous actions or characters added in to pad it out. Come the end, when you realise just how little there has been under consideration, it’s staggeringly impressive how much richness Penny has squeezed from such seemingly meagre offerings. Once again we have a Challenge to the Reader — and once again everything is there for you to see, but blimey don’t you need to be looking closely — and then the final 21-page chapter ties it all up…and this is where the wheels fall off.
Well, okay, not fall off, but become a little mired. Because, dude, for what is essentially a fairly explicable series of events does Penny ever make the explanation confusing. Sure, there’s a clue-finder — footnoted references as a couple of weeks ago — but the preceding events are demystified in a strange order and without much by way of explanation for some elements. I read it twice, and some of the finer points are lost on me still — there’s a moderate amount of who-was-where-and-how-long-it-takes-to-get-somewhere-else which, say, Freeman Wills Crofts manages to make perfectly clear but Penny bungles badly so you end up just having to trust him. And yet it’s very smart, the tennis racket covers especially, but just maybe a little too rich in density, bringing to mind early Ellery Queen rather than the peak period John Dickson Carr or Christianna Brand it needs.
This might be why Penny remained what TomCat calls “a second-stringer” in detective fiction: he had the smarts, and was capable of brilliant plotting conceits, but couldn’t always follow through with the clarity the best of the genre brings. For some the nocuous effect of this final stretch will be too much, and I can’t bregrudge them that: the ending here is rather more reified than the brilliant clarity before it deserves, and the antithesis of what we’d expect from the very best. As a puzzle, however, it is exquisite, even if the picture on the box doesn’t quite match the contents. Aaah, what might have been…
Noah @ Noah’s Archives: But make no mistake, this is not a classic for the ages. By virtue of the difficulty of the underlying puzzle, it’s definitely a cut above a time-passer, but there’s a pervasive air of cardboard throughout that allows the characterization to be sufficient to conceal the murderer, if you follow me. The characters do what they’re said to do because the author says so, and not because Penny has troubled to construct them so that they will logically do those things. Let me merely say that this is a first-rate second-rate mystery.
Martin Edwards: In fact, the plot is so elaborate that it comes close to sinking under the weight of its own cleverness. As with a number of similar books, I found the opening scenes and the revelations by far the best parts of the story. In between, there was much that was verging on the turgid. But there is a ‘challenge to the reader’ and a cluefinder to compensate. Penny was an appealing author and this book, for all its flaws, appealed to me.
The novels of Rupert Penny, published by Ramble House:
And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card this fulfils the category, yup. nothing I don;t already have. Man, I clearly do not get enough variety into my GAD. Urf, this means I need to branch out again, doesn’t it?