Thanks to the recent reprints by Ramble House, a few years ago I discovered the Chief Inspector Edward Beale books written by Ernest Thornett under the nom de plume Rupert Penny. Puzzle-dense and complex beyond belief, they were a joy to my pattern-obsessed brain and, having now read all eight of them, my mind immediately moves to the concept of placing them in a hierarchy.
But — aha! — Penny is such a favourite of mine (keep it to yourself, but the emergence of an unpublished Penny novel would be more exciting for me than an unpublished work by John Dickson Carr…though I’d more than delightedly welcome either) I thought I’d rank these differently. Rather than just “this one’s the worst to this one’s the best”, it seemed more interesting to me to rank them in terms of how successfully each book achieves the conceit set out within its pages. So, for instance, a book with a wonderful surprise come the end might delight me for puzzle plot reasons, but there could be no denying that a huge wall of text must be swallowed to explain away certain actions to achieve that ending. Sure, I’d probably very much enjoy it with some reservations, but the novice coming to these books may well find that anathema.
In short, I’m trying to take my Penny fandom out of the equation, and rate each book on its individual merits. Hopefully that will become more clear as we progress, but for the time being let’s dive straight in with…
In his genre-sweeping study The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017), Martin Edwards used this title as one such touchstone, saying that Penny’s books were “plotted with an elaboration that is extraordinary even by Golden Age standards”. For my money, this is the one time Penny’s complexity outdoes itself — the disappearance of two people, then a vanishing body, then a body turning up in surprisingly grisly condition (you’ll never look at tennis racket covers quite the same way again) sets itself up wonderfully…but things stall a bit in the middle third, and some the conclusion there’s so much explaining to do that I’ve already forgotten at least 20% of what happened to whom and why.
It’s breathtakingly complex, and there’s a piece of misdirection in here as good as anything you’ll find in the genre — leading to one surprise so wonderful I’d commend sticking out the struggle of grinding through parts of this — but if I weren’t a fan of Penny when I read this there’s little chance I’d have a) enjoyed it anywhere near as much or b) picked up a second title by him. As with a lot of Penny#s work coming ten years earlier it would have made much more of an impact, and you feel this was him having set out his stable and now simply cutting loose on the most complicated thing he could compose.
Penny’s debut, giving us a murder with apparently no motive in a secluded stronghold of Ye Olde English Countryside. This is a joy for the traditional mystery-lover, with a polyglot of informational presentation: maps, charts, train timetables, newspaper articles, lectures on the finer points of fingerprinting, and a central detective in Beale who’s as fallible as he is likeable. Alas, while containing some wonderful clues and a charming Challenge to the Reader, it’s all a little episodic — problem, solution, problem, solution, problem, solution — where mixing up the issues and answers would pay far higher dividends. Encouraging for a debut, but a little frustrating from a plot perspective when it’s all so evenly distributed.
If anything, this one feels a little tame — there’s no doubt Penny has a clear scheme in mind, and some of the misdirection is good if not quite world-beating, but there’s a more confident edit of this which would compress some events and draw out others to make the experience a bit more meaty. The uninitiated would read this and possibly suspect penny didn’t quite have the stones for real puzzle plotting, or that he couldn’t keep his various pieces in view if things ever became truly complicated, and as such there’s a faint air of anticlimax. This sort of linearity of plotting would go on to improve, but one might not believe that possible if starting here.
Here is Penny at his most accessible: chocolates and poison disappearing at a boys’ school and Beale co-opted into getting to the bottom of whether or not any mystery exists at the base of it all. It has that similar linearity of plotting as The Talkative Policeman, but here the revelations are sown out more liberally, and the confusion of the situation used more sparingly to creat a better sense of a situation rather than an author trying to keep their plot in order. Things stumble in an oddly amateur way come the second half — Beale and Tony Purdon sit around discussing permutations for two chapters that bored even me — and the suspects are boiled off in an odd manner so that really only one candidate remains come the close and so it’s difficult to feel too surprised.
Something that only occurred to me in the last few days, too, is that I have no idea how the opening puzzle of the missing chocolates actually ties into the resulting murder. Each almost seems like a moiety of a different book but for the overlapping characters and setting. It’s interesting that the one Beale book Penny wrote after this very much relegated him and Tony to minor roles, perhaps indicating that Penny recognised that not everything could be justified through the presence of either after tying this one up. Still his most ‘standard’ GAD fare, however, and one could well believe better was to be found in his output once the brilliance of that murder — and the difficulty in pinning it on the culprit — is revealed.
This is possibly my favourite of the Beale books, and one of three excellent impossible crimes Penny contributed to that subgenre during his career. The central misdirection is smart, it’s great fun experiencing a case from Beale’s perspective (he narrates the second half, after Tony Purdon does the first), and the use of psychology come the end is devastatingly accurate. However…let’s not deny that the central murder doesn’t really provide any reason to be investigated besides being in a book: no reason the victim couldn’t or wouldn’t have locked themselves in a room and committed suicide is ever really provided. Additionally, I know some people struggle with the opening treasure hunt, as it takes a while for everything to fall into place.
There’s an argument to be made that this is Penny’s plotting at its most stagey — we stop just short of someone declaring “It’s like one of those mystery novels!”, but it’s one of the few times you feel the hoardings being wheeled into place so that the plot can unfold in the way required. Now, I’ve never had a problem with that, and the scheme employed here is whip-smart and commends itself to anyone who loves an impossible crime that provides a moment of “Oh, dammit!” when they realise how the rug slipped out from beneath them, but I get that not everyone likes that, and the titles ahead on this list would perhaps be a better calling point before tackling this one.
Penny’s sophomore effort shows a marked improvement in the wrangling of the puzzle plot, and manages to turn an unlikley suicide into the sort of wonderful collage of suspicion, mysterious behaviour, and cannily-hidden plain sight clues that such setups were designed for. Yes, there’s a small amount of Basil Exposition some the end, but it’s far less arduous than his previous book and much more artful than the likes of She Had to Have Gas on account of how Penny has handled his impressive cast. A single unlikely-as-all-hell coincidence is required to bring this together, but far more highly-regarded books have rested on much more unlikely combinations of event than that, and it would be a hard heart indeed that didn’t give it a pass.
If you were reading penny chronologically, you’d start to see the development of him as an author here — the answers are just as baffling, and just as faithfully clewed, but now the pace and order of revelations is more confidently handled. It lacks that retrospective realisation of …Evidence and Sweet Poison, so it’s difficult to really recommend it for any single moment of brilliance, but for potential realised this is a very encouraging book indeed. If you can read this and not want to know how Penny developed as an author, you’re clearly not into this sort of book; and if you do want to know, well, next comes…
The first of Penny’s impossible crimes: the stabbing of a man in a room where the only person with access would not have dunnit. Works in a plan of such wonderful cunning through exquisite who-was-where-when reasoning, and manages to do it while throwing all manner of obfuscation at you along the way. Observing the etiquette of the puzzle mystery to the letter, we get misunderstood speech, faithfully-reported witness testimony that doesn’t realise what it actually saw, and a houseful of suspicious types who all seem far too innocent to be guilty and yet all have enough guilt upon them to call their innocence into question. I love this book, and would probably revise my rating of it were I to reread it, though I’m guessing I gave it 4 stars for a reason at the time.
It’s only in third place on account of how non-traditional the two remaining books are, as it’s Penny’s most try-this-one-and-see-if-you-like-it book; those on the fringes of the puzzle plot should go with Sweet Poison, but if you’re deep into the mystery genre you’d do well to begin here. You’re not guaranteed to like anything you read, but this is Penny at his most presentable. It’s traditional all the way through, the pacing is perfect, the plan unrolls with seamless efficiency, and you’ll slap yourself for not seeing the key thing in the key way you need to see the key thing. In other words, exactly what you’re looking for in a mystery novel. For the more adventurous, however…
2. Sealed Room Murder (1941) [Beale #8]
This is the only Beale book I haven’t reviewed on here, simply because I read it too long before I started blogging to be able to give it a fully informed write-up. As suggested above, my suspicion is that Penny saw the difficulty in making Beale and/or Purdon the centre of everything and so — having devised the wonderful locked room murder method herein — relegates them to the background and takes us through a household so poisonous and full of spite that a tapestry of misdeed ends up as the breeding ground of a far more cynical crime. Yeah, not everyone likes that you’re made to wait for the murder, but this was Penny’s final novel and I’m willing to bet that it turned out pretty much exactly as he wanted.
The diagrams are a delight, the way the atmosphere in the house is communicated still sticks with me from key scenes, and the shift away from Beale — I now appreciate — enabled this to be far more experimental than most of what Penny had done before. It’s a little masterpiece of character, especially when you compare the longer takes spent with fewer people here with the cameos of his first handful, and as the first Beale book I read I’ll always have a soft spot for it for what it opened up to me. Since this made me a Penny fan on the spot, it’s clearly a book that has the power to make you a Penny fan on the spot.
An escaped lunatic is murdering people and stealing their shoes. And now, having read all the books in this series, I can see how this is probably the apotheosis of Penny achieving what he wanted with a novel. The plot is geared to maximum befuddle, but he’s also willing to spend a bit longer with certain characters, and for the deaths, when they come, to mean something beyond simply providing a corpse. It’s interesting to me to realise that all the characters I remember in any meaningful way in this series come from this book onwards — which is not to say that Penny was to forsake plot and become J.D. Salinger in his latter career, but this feels like the point where that decision was made.
Equally, that gewgaw glimmer of the stolen shoes is deployed beautifully in the final picture, the convolutions sashaying perfectly around the cerebral demands made of you, the revelations handed out at a sensible rate, the flashes of humour working perfectly with the misdirection, and the eventual surprise of how thoroughly you’ve been hoodwinked folded effortlessly into a tense, knock-me-down finale (aaah, that wardrobe…). I’m not even sure why I docked it a star when I reviewed it, to be honest, but sometimes hindsight is 20/20 vision. Anyone wanting Penny at his most potent should start here — it’s his Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), his Death of Jezebel (1948). I’d advise you perhaps jump in elsewhere, because he offers an unapologetically strong flavour right from the off, but at full power this is what the man can do.
Of course, I’m not sure that anyone else has read all of these, so I’m mostly talking to myself here, I guess…