We tend to take it for granted that authors like John Dickson Carr and John Rhode created noms de plume effectively to enable them to produce double the amount of their usual fiction. Central character names aside, Rhode’s works don’t really differ from ‘Miles Burton’s nor Carr’s from that of ‘Carter Dickson’. You’d think they’d want a day off every now and then (and their critics might suggest they could have used one). One would expect a new identity to be quite freeing — see Agatha Christie occasionally escaping into the social concerns of ‘Mary Westmacott’, or Anthony Berkeley rearranging his palette as ‘Francis Iles’ — a chance to experiment in private, as it were.
Ernest Thornett (in common with Rhode, whose real name was Cecil Street) already had that freedom from his daily life in writing eight dense, twist-filled, ingenious puzzle novels under the nom de plume of Rupert Penny, and having run his brain ragged with the sort of labyrinthine delights the Golden Age was made for, clearly sought a change of pace for Cut and Run (1941), his (as far as we know…) final novel. Essentially a series of vignettes in which our protagonists are caught by a pursuing force only to escape and the process to be repeated, this is a very different beast to Penny’s puzzlers…and yet you can feel the same hand at the tiller in the effortless character notes and not-entirely-on-the-fly construction of the whole affair.
Like the best chase thrillers, the setup is simplicity (and absurdity) defined: Arnold Dane, moved by boyhood reminiscences, parks his car at the side of the road to investigate marshland for twenty minutes, and returns to discover — by way of an urgently whispered message when flagged down by Dr. Herman Paul — that he has an escaped lunatic in the back seat. Fleeing Dr. Paul and his American gunman confrere, Dane discovers that said lunatic is Rhona French, a young lady who repudiates the accusation of lunacy against her, claiming that Dr. Paul, a renowned psychiatrist and her legal guardian, has had her sectioned and ensconced in his private hospital by way of claiming the vast fortune she is due to come into in a fortnight (did no-one make a sensible will in the 1930s and 40s?). Thus, the chase is on: Dr. Paul deploying his own vast intelligence and resources to recapture Rhona, and she and Arnold trying, and repeatedly failing, to stay out of his clutches.
Man, it’s nice to see Rupert Penny having some fun. No doubt he enjoyed compiling those indomitable puzzles for Chief Inspector Beale, but cut loose from obscure clewing and the truckling demands of the detective novel he’s like a new man. Yes, the structure gets rather repetitive, and the anticipated intelligence of the final confrontation hilariously boils away to nothing, but there’s so much great construction and seamless insertion of interesting wrinkles that it’s difficult to hold too much against it being a great time. The English setting, too, might initially seem too restrictive — there’s a reason that most of the great chase thrillers are set in bigger countries — but ends up being among the biggest strengths the book has; our fugitives holing up in the most disappointing holiday caravan in fiction, or the contrivance which seems Mr. Jervis Brown brought into proceedings, add to the charms rather than feeling like an author desperately throwing events in to extend their narrative.
Penny has, in my estimation, always had a great eye for pithy character touches, and that helps in a novel that doesn’t want to pause for breath to detail life stories. Arnold Dane is both human enough to feel relatable and insightful enough to make the reader hope they’d behave so intelligently in similar circumstances — his observation about the policeman early on, say — while also possessed of a singleness of purpose that sees him engage in some necessary if morally shady escapades to get out of tight corners. He’s also able to hold his own on the surface while a jittering bag of nerves underneath (“…my whole back seemed to be listening for the sound of pursuit, and my feet behaved so unnaturally that they might have been borrowed like my coat”), and engages in some great dialogue exchanges in the spirit of the latter: facing down the aforementioned gunman with the observation that “I was brought up to believe that no right-minded person ever wore brown shoes, spats, a soft collar, and a bow tie all at once”, or, when threatened by Dr. Paul with torture the following exchange taking place:
“[The torturer] is a fully-qualified dental-surgeon, so you needn’t be afraid he’ll bungle. Or perhaps I ought to put it that he used to be qualified, until he rather foolishly took advantage of a young woman under anaesthetic.”
“But since I’m not a young woman,” I remarked gravely, “I haven’t even that to look forward to.”
9 thoughts on “#673: Cut and Run (1941) by Martin Tanner”
Thanks for the review – I eschewed purchasing this title as it seemed to depart from the puzzle focus on his other works. Sounds like good fun, but I still think I want my puzzle. Incidentally, is Ramble House still active? I thought Fender Tucker had retired…
The Ramble House website continues to add books to their stable — of late there have been a lot of Walter S. Masterman titles liste in recent months — and the most recent announcement on the website about their publications is dated 6th April 2020…so, yeah, it’s very much still going. I thought Gavin O’Keefe has taken over the running, but where I got that impression from I cannot say.
So the good news is that, when the rest of the world finally comes to appreciate the genius of Rupert Penny, there will be affordable editions of his works available… 🙂
Interesting review. I am after wondering whether this might be the Penny novel for me…
It’s…probably more your sort of thing than Penny’s usual, certainly.
How’d you like The 39 Steps by John Buchan? I suppose that’s the closest easily-appreciable comparison I cam make: this is very much about the chase and hiding, with a lot of capture-and-escape, and just enough contrivance to turn that into a coherent narrative.
It’s great fun if that’s your kind of thing, and made a really nice change from the sort of thing I’d been reading previously. but, of course, I also still harbour hopes of tracking down some of Penny’s crosswords one of these days, so I might be slightly biased…
As unlikely as it seems, three people have separately emailed me asking for a list of the fifty Ramble House titles I’ve read, and so, I believe it looks like this:
Max Afford, Blood on His Hands
____________, The Dead Are Blind
____________, Death’s Mannikins
____________, Owl of Darkness
____________, Sinners in Paradise
____________, The Sheep and the Wolves
Norman Berrow, The Smokers of Hashish
_________________, Oil Under the Widow
_________________, It Howls at Night
_________________, The Terror in the Fog
_________________, The Secret Dancer
_________________, One Thrilling Night
_________________, Fingers for Ransom
_________________, Ghost House
_________________, Murder in the Melody
_________________, The Bishop’s Sword
_________________, The Spaniard’s Thumb
_________________, The Footprints of Satan
Miles Burton, Death Leaves No Card
______________, A Smell of Smoke
Gilbert Collins, Mystery in St. James’s Square
Evelyn Elder, Murder in Black and White
Bruce Elliot, You’ll Die Laughing
Wallace Irwin, The Julius Caesar Murder Case
Harry Stephen Keeler, The Sharkskin Book
______________________, The Affair of the Bottled Deuce
E.C.R. Lorac, Case in the Clinic
____________, Slippery Staircase
____________, The Devil and the C.I.D.
____________, Black Beadle
Walter S. Masterman, The Wrong Letter
______________________, The Perjured Alibi
______________________, The Border Line
______________________, The Baddington Horror
Harvey J. O’Higgins, Detective Duff Unravels It [ss]
Nicholas Olde, The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Herne [ss]
Rupert Penny, The Talkative Policeman
______________, Policeman’s Holiday
______________, Policeman in Armour
______________, The Lucky Policeman
______________, Policeman’s Evidence
______________, She Had to Have Gas
______________, Sweet Poison
______________, Sealed Room Murder
Robert O. Saber, The Black Dark Murders
Hake Talbot, The Hangman’s Handyman
____________, Rim of the Pit
Martin Tanner, Cut and Run
Manly Wade Wellman, Devil’s Planet
E. Charles Vivian, Evidence in Blue
Philip Wylie, The Smiling Corpse
Which is 51 books (I’d forgotten that Vivian title, which is pretty forgettable), so I apologise for being a lying liar. Some absolutely great books on here, which just goes to show the brilliant work RH have done over the years. And we’re not done yet — I’ve still got a bunch of Berrows to read, intending to undertake more Masterman, and there are some singular scribes on their books I’m hoping to dig out of my TBR before too long. Who knows how high the final number will be…?!
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And now we just need a ranked list from best to worst lol
Ha. Well, A Smell of Smoke is at the foot of the list, I can tell you that.
Sealed Room Murder is the only Rupert Penny that Ive read. I enjoyed it immensely although I can see why some people had problems with it. There’s a long build-up with lots of character stuff and you have to wait a long long time for the locked-room murder. But the build-up is fascinating and the locked-room puzzle is worth waiting for. I liked it enough to want to read more.
If Cut and Run is reminiscent of The 39 Steps then I may just have to read it. I’m a huge John Buchan fan.
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