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.
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.
I consider Rupert Penny to be in the front rank of GAD authors I have stumbled over, and yet have somehow gone a full year without reading anything by him. So let’s get things rolling with the very un-Pennyian structuring trick that’s now de rigeur in modern crime fiction — Two Seemingly Independent Threads That Shockingly Turn Out To Be Linked: the vanishing of a possibly-dead lodger from her room and the near-simultaneous disappearance of a young woman following a financial demand from an ex-lover to not reveal compromising letters she sent him. Seriously, where would blackmailers be without the Royal Mail?
A man prone to bouts of lunacy escapes in unusual circumstances from the private sanatorium where he is a resident, and shortly thereafter a series of murders are committed, the left shoe removed from each victim…well, you join the dots. And yet, can it really be that simple? Ordinary GAD rules say no, but this is Rupert Penny, puzzle-maker par excellence, and thus such easy prehension could be both a feint and the actual intended explanation. So Scotland Yard’s Chief-Inspector Edward Beale is dispatched and brings amateur hanger-on Tony Purdon and Sergeant ‘Horsey’ Matthews with him, a crime-solving triumvirate likely to have even Inspector Joseph French quailing jealously at their ability to unpick complex schemes.
I am swiftly approaching the point where I will be reluctant to read any more Rupert Penny; he published a mere nine books, of which Policeman in Armour is the fifth I’ve read, and I don’t want to find myself in a situation where there’s no new Rupert Penny to pick up and lose myself in. I still have plenty to be getting on with — half of Carr, 10 Christies, 17 Berrows, countless undiscovered gems — but Penny holds a special significance for me because he is such a superb classicist and produced detective plots that walk the fine line between several stools without tripping and getting trapped between any of them (I apologise for any pain that mixed metaphor may have caused you).
So here’s a starting point that doesn’t belong on a blog about crime fiction between 1920 and 1959 with frequent diversions into apparent impossibilities: I freakin’ love Batman. The whole Bruce Wayne/Batman duality in almost any form is an absolute joy to me – I’m not going to geek out here over the many, many years I’ve spent reading the comics nor the sundry disappointments of the various cinematic fusterclucks (I’m looking daggers at you, Schumacher…Burton, you’re borderline), and shall instead make the following observation: the second I heard Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced, I’d practically bought my ticket on the fact of it being a new Batman incarnation.