The plan for April, since I was off gallivanting around during March and got virtually no reading at all done, had been to dig through some obscure books on my TBR and bring to light titles perhaps unjustly forgotten. But one, two, three duds passed in a row, and so instead I leap into the welcoming arms of Rupert Penny. Cue the swift vanishing of a box of chocolates and a bottle of potassium cyanide at Anstey Court boarding school, and the roping in of Chief Inspector Edward Beale by Assistant Commissioner Sir Francis Barton — whose son is a pupil — to figure out what malice, if any, is behind it all.
Crushingly, this is my final Beale novel from Penny — the old fox would get one more day in the sun with Sealed Room Murder (1941), but I read that first, pre-blog — and only the thriller Cut and Run (1941) published under Ernest Basil Charles Thornett’s other nom de plume Martin Tanner remains to me. They are an author and a character both I have come to love, comprising surely one of the most consistent bodies of work from the Golden Age, and rich in the puzzle tradition that makes my heart race so. And, among the magniloquent complexity of plotting he has brought us previously, this one is actually pretty straightforward — still making it more complex than the average GADer’s output — and this decoction of Penny’s key ingredients actually make it a wonderful one to go out on…or, indeed, to start with if one were so inclined.
Beale accepts with as much equanimity as he can the role of “professional sleuth hard on the trail of thirty-three missing chocolates”, and while he starts of feeling “more like committing a murder than forestalling one” there can be no denying that the situation has for him its pleasures. Arriving in the midst of the half term holiday and three-day filial visit, the sound of a nearby cricket game on campus has him “wish[ing] for a moment that he were younger, and playing”, and as the puzzle progresses and the chocolates begin the appear in a variety of unexpected places he finds the boys at the school not entirely unpleasant company; undertaking a search of the school with two of the most trusted, themselves bustling with curiosity about what Beale’s presence signifies, they work up the courage to ask him and he has the following reflection:
He knew that with a word he could subdue them; that if he became in any way magisterial they would subside gracefully, perhaps disappointed but never again intruding their desire to learn what might be going on behind the scenes … Yet he preferred them as they were now, with upturned faces and alertly interrogative eyes. They were more human and more friendly, and made him feel that after all forty-four need not be quite the depths of middle age.
The real triumph of this book is how fully you feel the students as people, from a teacher assuring Beale that “boys can be intelligent, you know, so long as it’s nothing to do with lessons” to the never-explained incident in which “a child called Jenkins caused a mild diversion by punching another child called Opie on the nose in the middle of church one Sunday morning” right through their various nicknames, responses to the tragedy that befalls them, and dialogue as gleeful as it is borderline-incoherent:
“You can’t get tight by eating.”
“Says you! What about DeThingummy. Opium-Eater — there you are!”
“But opium’s a drug — ’tain’t the same thing at all.”
“Oh, all right. Anyway, it’s only made of poppies. I tried some once, only I didn’t notice anything.”
“Tried what?” asked Beale, smiling.
“Making opium, sir. I got a handful of big poppy-heads all full of seeds, the kind you shake and they rattle, and stewed ’em and stewed ’em, and then drank the juice. In the hols, that was.”
“And you weren’t even sick?”
Askew looked surprised.
“Oh, no sir,” he said simply. “I’m never sick. I never have been. I wouldn’t know what to do, even.”