This title had stuck in my memory from perusing Ramble House’s stable, and when I saw it listed in Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., 1992) — having not previously realised it was an impossible crime — I snapped it up. Then it cropped up in the comments of a post at Brad’s place and it was as if the stars had aligned. The dedication to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler “with the author’s feeling that in distance there is security” hints that you’re not getting the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, and the opening line introducing “Publius Manlius Scribo, star reporter and sports columnist on the Evening Tiber” in 44 B.C., heavily implies that you’re clearly not getting a slavishly faithful historical epic, either.
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.
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.
The detective novel often requests that you, the reader, swallow some fairly difficult concepts in order to fully engage with it — that someone can organically devise the methods of murder and misdirection depicted within, for instance, or that the mechanical solutions sometimes put froward do actually work in the manner described. However, the delightfully creative Norman Berrow, in his werewolf-on-the-prowl novel It Howls at Night (1937), demands of you the greatest degree of forbearance I’ve yet encountered, a hurdle some may struggle to overcome, in requiring you to believe that a man would actually go by the name of ‘Pongo Slazenger’.
It comes to us all in the end: the moment that a prolific, tantalisingly-just-about-available author we’ve been low-key enjoying without ever really loving suddenly turns in an utter duffer of a book. It happened with the last Lorac I read — Slippery Staircase (1938) — and while Black Beadle (1939) doesn’t quite plow the same ignominious farrow, it’s not exactly leaps and bounds better. And yet Edith Rivett’s take on the standard GAD milieu is so atypical that while she’ll miss the mark on a few occasions, I don’t believe she’ll have written anything without any merit whatsoever. This is still a substandard effort, but with enough wrinkles to warrant attention.
I’m on a bit of a Ramble House kick at the moment: Rupert Penny, Norman Berrow, Walter S. Masterman, with E.C.R. Lorac coming soon. The Perjured Alibi (1935) is my third Masterman title to date, and I’d intended this to be where I’d make the decision whether or not to persevere with him. But, well, I have a copy of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (1991) now and that’s got me thinking that I should at least give the remaining couple of impossibilities a go — especially as it turns out Ramble House have recently republished his debut The Wrong Letter (1926), which I’ve been after for a while. So it would be churlish to stop here…
Aaaah, Norman Berrow. Such highs, such lows, so much middle ground. I can’t think of anyone else who leaves me on such a knife-edge: with a few adjustments here and there Berrow could well have written some genre classics, and it’s often an agonising fascination waiting to see which way the book falls. So now we’re back at the very beginning with his first novel The Smokers of Hashish (1934), decidedly more adventure than detection, where he applies his chameleonic tendencies to some (ahem) intrigue in Tangier. As you may expect from a book of this era with this title, the result is pulpy fun, though with two neat moments to distinguish it.