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.”
Dr. Paul is a fascinating character — a clearly unscrupulous and highly intelligent man who uses every ounce of his wits and reach to remorselessly hound our protagonists, and yet one who will happily spend half an hour admiring the efforts of a clearly conscientious gardener and offer them a cutting of a rare rose. It’s quite refreshing to have a villain put so much store by their word without this turning out to be showboatin’ self-aggrandisement when the chips are down. Paul’s intelligence is key to making the book work, since you have to believe the various ways he tracks down Arnold and Rhona, and the explanations he good-naturedly offers each time show that he gambles smartly and usually has to follow up several threads without initially knowing which is correct.
Rhona, too, is thankfully more than just a damsel to be ushered from scene to scene, taking a largely active role at key moments, and the moral grey inhabited by Dr. Paul’s assistant Gloria helps to elevate the shamelessly, gloriously pulpish conventions of this by playing with that archetype. And the character traits don’t stop there, continuing all the way down to the maid Martha giving our heroes “a lesson in elementary detection” that is beautifully succinct and as brilliantly deduced as anything under the ‘Rupert Penny’ banner, or the casual way Malcolm Imery’s brother informs all present “I’m hungry” towards the end — wonderful touches, all. Add to this a smattering of contemporary details like the need to access money from a particular branch of a bank, or the question of establishing the identity of a man who doesn’t exist, and what you have is a very different book to Penny’s usual, and one that’s an unqualified success on its own terms. Now all I need is for someone to uncover three sequels to it…
Quite by chance, this is also by my estimation the 50th book I’ve read from Ramble House — good heavens! And with plenty of Walter S. Masterman on their roster and solidly half of Norman Berrow still to go, not to mention the sundry individual titles I have on my own TBR, it looks like I’ll be benefiting from their continued excellent efforts for quite some time yet. Thanks to all involved in bringing that superbly catholic band of loons to our bookshelves — keep up the wonderful work!
The novels of Rupert Penny, published by Ramble House: