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.”