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.”
Yes, we’re securely in the upper middle-class set where all Penny’s books — hell, where most Golden Age detective fiction — takes place, and there’s of course discussion about what would ‘actually’ happen in a detective novel, but it’s yet again Penny’s sly side-eyed view of character that really commends him for me. The headmaster’s sister, Charlotte Weekes, starts out as a one-note dragon before chapter six sees her unbend in remarkable fashion (managing to say “I don’t suppose I like one person in a hundred I meet, and for all I mind most of them could die on the spot” and emerge as the most sympathetic character while doing so is no mean feat…though holding against someone that they “turn down the pages of books” is a gripe I wholly identify with, which probably helps), and she’s by no means alone in feeling like a legitimate person in the midst of this poisoned chocolates case.
Our headmaster Herbert Weekes speaks “as if he expected his listeners…to answer a short examination paper when he had finished” and is so inconsistent in his actions and expectations that “he was relied upon by none”. The caustic master Lloyd Gregory typifies his disinterest in the opposite sex by opining that “I don’t have to think twice if I fancy a decent seat at Covent Garden or a theatre at Christmas, but if I had a wife I might find myself queuing for the gallery, and that would be horrible”. Or witness the early characterising of the “chinless little man” Mr. Elkington, who has to screw his courage to the mast to raise his hand and ask a question of Mr. Weekes. Time and again, these characters come across as neither likeable nor detestable — even our killer, once identified, has a degree of pathos behind their actions, and is allowed a delightful moment of revelation when they tell how they knew Beale was wise to them as the guilty party — and the more you learn the more real they all seem.
The shame of it is, then, that, as the novel progresses, more and more of them are pushed to the sidelines. I imagine many people will pick the killer simply by a dearth of possible culprits in the closing stages, though it will be a guess given how smartly Penny hides the various revelations that lead Beale to his quarry…goddamn, he’s simply wonderful at using your a posteriori knowledge of a crime to cloud your faculties for apriori speculation, and time and again he rolled out an explanation that was for me so frustratingly obvious in hindsight. Even if you don’t agree with my take on Penny’s characters, you surely can’t deny his skill with reversals, all helped on by a rich dose of humour — see the sole footnote herein — as strong as it is beautifully understated and dry at times (to wit: Beale and Barton discussing how many boys could be killed by the stolen cyanide, a tricky tonal balance to maintain).
The joys of Penny’s characters and humour, plus the treatise on undiscovered murderers at the two-thirds point, can’t quite make up for the deficiencies in pacing that kick in following the midway murder, however. A lot of discussion about missing chocolates and possible motives and perpetrators gums up the book when it should be kicking into gear, and while the speculation is never less than intelligently wrought — Tony Purdon again proving a most elucidating sounding-board — it adds little and slows things down for almost twenty interminable pages. Things recover, and the horror of the crime really strikes at the heart of an establishment whose denizens are not so passé as your usual stiff-backed circle of suspects, but it’s difficult to ignore this fumbled handling of a key phase. However, the book’s successes win through, to the extent that I don’t even mind — actually, I celebrate — how the guilt cannot be fixed on one person by any, y’know, evidence, and the requirement for a confession arises come the closing stages. Usually, this vexes me immensely, but Penny’s building of such a case feels almost like a more successful attempt at Leo Bruce’s style of subversion, and the intelligence behind the deductions that bring the killer into our grasp is never less than fabulous.
And so, goodbye to Chief Inspector Edward Beale. It’s been quite a ride, and I’ve loved almost every minute. I shall particularly enjoy revisiting these in the years ahead, but for now I need someone else to provide my complex puzzle fun…
Moira @ Clothes in Books: This one has a marvellous first half: some chocolates have gone missing – those liqueur chocs that scream ‘poison opportunity’ to the experienced murder story reader – along with some cyanide. The headmaster and his sister have a very odd family, and there are two nephews at the school (one popular, one not) who may be in danger. Investigations get under way on the day of the big cricket match. This was all tremendous stuff which I greatly enjoyed. In my view the book went downhill in the second half, after someone has died: there is a great deal of counting of chocolate bars, and we are told that it is all quite impossible. There were some excellent revelations, and then the solution was produced, not very impressively.
Noah @ Noah’s Archives: An unusual technique is employed, in that the murder is delayed until perhaps the middle of the book; the first half is spent establishing the territory and the characters. I have to say, it is not time wasted. I am occasionally the type of reader who wishes that an author would quit with the precious description of the countryside and just get on with the bloodbath, but here, as always with Penny, I was content to enjoy the quotidian workings of a veddy Briddish prep school and enjoy the plot’s knots constricting slowly.
The novels of Rupert Penny, published by Ramble House: