#442: She Had to Have Gas (1939) by Rupert Penny

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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…

~

See also:

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:

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)

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Nine–and Death Makes Ten from last week because, well, let’s go with “compromising letters” and leave it at that.

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?

18 thoughts on “#442: She Had to Have Gas (1939) by Rupert Penny

  1. Well, you began your review promising enough. I even began to consider to finally take a whack at The Talkative Policeman, but then you used to the phrase “a little mired” and immediately got flashbacks to Sealed Room Murder. I really want to give Penny a second opportunity, but he’s as unappealing to me as early Ellery Queen is to you.

    And let’s be honest. Do any of the other titles in the series even stand a chance to impress me, when Sealed Room Murder failed me so miserably?

    • Policeman’s Evidence might. I think SRM is excellent, as you’re aware, but the unwary would find the essential idea of PE very appealing, and I’d call it a five star novel (indeed, I’m pretty sure I rated it thus on this very blog).

      Or, away from impossibilities — gasp! — The Lucky Policeman is very entertaining, and Policeman’s Holiday shows a real talent with the puzzle plot at an early stage of his career.

      But for you, I’d suggest PE. If you can’t get through a Penny novel with that nice an impossibility at its core, there’s a good chance he’s not for you.

      • At it’s core? You mean tucked away at the end and was preceded by a floor plan of the bedroom that gave the whole game away. And getting to that point in the story was like dragging through a swamp. Not what you expect from one of the most accomplished plotters the genre ever produced.

        I’ll give you that the idea of locked room was not bad at all and a lot of editing, cutting and some re-writing could have turned Sealed Room Murder in a classic locked room short story or novella, but, as a novel, it was just dreadful. And a complete waste of a potentially good idea.

        • Hi TomCat,

          I read “Policeman’s Evidence” at JJ’s recommendation, and found its puzzle to be excellent.

          I’ve also read “Talkative Policeman”, “Policeman’s Holiday” and “Policeman in Armour” – and for now “Armour” ranks as the next best Penny novel for me, after “Evidence”.

          As such, “Evidence” comes with strong endorsement from me; it made it easily into the top 5 mystery novels I read in 2016. Generally speaking, I think I’m more positive than JJ is about Penny’s puzzles, and less positive than he is about Penny’s writing. “Armour”, for instance, I found to be a very clever puzzle in a less-than-engaging narrative. I would say the same for “Evidence”, except that it’s puzzle proved to be even better.

          • I…but…I am positive about Penny’s puzzles — I love Rupert Penny’s brand of puzle plotting. Does…does that not come across?

            • Yes JJ, you are very positive about Penny’s puzzles. 😊 I was only making a comparative remark based on previous reviews.

              I think I was slightly more positive about the puzzle for “Policeman in Armour” – we agreed on all the positives, but the thing you felt it lacked (single moment of hoodwinking, etc) I thought was there.

        • I think you misread J.J. there – he’s referring to PE with the “impossibility at its core”, not SRM.

            • I did misread JJ’s comment, but then again, we would probably disagree about Policeman’s Evidence as well. So was my comment really that far off the mark? 🙂

  2. Thanks JJ for the review – I have a soft spot for Rupert Penny, and appreciate the limelight you give to him. 😊 I still have “Lucky Policeman”, “She Had to Have Gas”, “Sweet Poison” and “Sealed Room Murder” left to read, and will probably read them in this order.

    It sounds like “She Had to Have Gas” got entangled in its own convoluted plot, but I’m still looking forward to being entertained immensely by its puzzle! 🤩

    • Lucky is great, it’s so much fun and so famned clever when you get down to it — the choice of guily party and the way it’s unveiled lacks, as I’ve said countless times before, the “Holy cow!” shock of many of Penny’s Peers, but it’s also a far more complex mystery than most of his contemporaries could have structured and resolved as clearly as he does.

      This leaves me, as you can see, with only Sweet Poison and the Martin Tanner book, which I understand to be something more of a thriller. Aww, man, there’s so little Penny left, life is rubbish sometimes.

      • I believe you awarded most of Penny’s novels 4 stars – “Armour”, “Holiday”, “Lucky” and now “Gas”. I’m curious to know if you think some out of these four titles are stronger/weaker than others? I liked “Armour” more than “Holiday”.

        Sounds like I’m in for a treat with “Lucky” as my next Penny novel! 🤩

        • Well, they each do things differently very well — the plot in Holiday is superbly managed, and has plenty of little moments that casually and easily expand the puzzle, but the explanation is a little disappointing and perhaps rather too verbose. To be honest, you’re better off reading the reviews themselves, because I go into the various merits of each one there. But if I were to rank them strongest to weakest of those I’ve given four stars it’d be something like:

          1. Lucky
          2. Armour
          3. Holiday
          4. Gas

          With, obviously, SRM and PE above that list in either order, and Talkative below. It’ll be a shame to finish Sweet Poison, because I’m a big fan of Penny and Beale. Indeed, it’s that partnership which I most credit with getting me into Crofts…and we all know how happy Crofts has made me late in life!

  3. I’ve always wanted to read Rupert Penny and nearly bought Policeman in Armor before deciding to limit the amount of money I was spending on mysteries with that haul. However, your review has roped me back into looking at his works and I would like to know what the best place to start with Penny is in your premier opinion 😀.

    • For newbies I’d suggest Policeman in Armour (for the essential simplicity of the complex puzzle), The Lucky Policeman (for…well, pretty much the exact same thing, plus a bit more in the way of character), or Ppoliceman’s Evidence (for, among other things, that moment when you realise how you were hoodwinked).

      Whatever you choose, I hope you enjoy him!

  4. Another one to put on my Christmas wish list, I think. I’ve never read Penny, but found other authors he is commonly lumped in with fairly dull. But of course he should be tried on his own terms and not be dismissed simply because other, dull-ish authors are called similar.

    • Well, exactly. You may loathe him, but equally you may find 9 books to delight over, and that seems like a risk worth taking to me…!

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