#49: The Talkative Policeman (1936) by Rupert Penny

Talkative PolicemanAaah, Christmas.  A time for cheer, goodwill to all men, on-trend ironic jumpers and spending time with the people you love.  Look around the crime fiction blogosphere and these loved ones include a tremendous number of murderers, victims, stooges, detectives and classic authors, and so for me the time is ripe for a return to my overriding obsessions: this week it’s Ernest Basil Charles Thornett’s turn as his debut under the guise of Rupert Penny with The Talkative Policeman.  And of course it’s a return to impossible crimes after a couple of weeks away with what the synopsis calls a “longer-than-usual impossible mystery,” and since Penny has written a couple of absolute doozys in this vein an extra bt of content is only to be a cause for celebration.  Clap hands.  Settle in.  Let’s go.

This was the second Penny I read after the wonderful Sealed Room Murder, and it’s fair to say that despite loving that I approached his debut with a little caution.  The puzzle plot is not something one typically excels at upon first attempt, so expecting the same level of craft from this tale of a blameless rural vicar found battered over the head in the woodland near his home would probably be unwise.  And while it may be true that the plot doesn’t quite hold up – we’ll get to that – there is enough quality here to see the germ of the author Penny would become.

He comes across as very playful and inventive, throwing out jokes about etymology, a beautifully (and possibly overly) technical discussion on the workings of fingerprints, some engagingly doggerel verse, and a very clever murder for which there honestly seems to be no motive.  He also created a fabulous first-time main character in Chief-Inspector Edward Beale, necessarily adamantine in his determination to catch the killer  but also full enough of foibles and tiny touches of sarcasm to feel like a real person without it ever being jammed down your neck just how much of a Real Person he is:

“Hullo,” said Beale.  “Anything doing?”

“Not a thing, sir – not a smell of a fingerprint anywhere.”

“I thought there mightn’t be,” replied the Inspector equably.

Matthews sighed.  “It’s a hard life.  Fingerprints are to me pretty nearly what a babe is to the mother who bore it.”

“Yes, quite,” said Beale.  “No doubt.  Don’t bore me, that’s all.”

Tiny moments of graceful subtlety shine through – such as how Beale ensures they won’t be overheard discussing the case when they repair to the lounge of the pub they’re staying in – and even Penny’s descriptions carry a lightness of touch on his first time out, such as the game-keeper, typified as:

[A] weather-beaten man of middle age whose double-barrelled gun, tucked snugly under his arm, seemed to be part of him; one could imagine, thought Tony, that he has been born with it there, much diminished in size, and that they had grown up together.

There is also a lovely degree of invention in his structure, with maps (yay!), newspaper articles, train timetables (just the one, mind, for those of you still reeling from the return of Inspector French to our bookshelves),  and the most delightful Challenge to the Reader I’ve ever read all playing their part in his telling (and it’s superbly presented in facsimile, too).  Of course there’s the requisite amount of contortion that must be allowed for this kind of story to be told – Tony Purdon wouldn’t be allowed to tag along just because he wants to watch his friend work on a case, for one – but it’s not like any tawdry tricks are rendered necessary by these sorts of touches, and if that kind of thing is going to take you out of a narrative then you’re reading the wrong genre anyway.

However, as I say, the puzzle plot is a tricky beast, and Penny inevitably fails to tame it fully on this first attempt.  The occurrences of the plot have a very staccato feel to them – as if rattled out to provide the necessary detail – and the absence of a smooth flow is a bit disorienting when trying to keep his impressively detailed milieu straight in your head.  Some superb extended pieces of prose – the rumination on why the crime can’t be the work of a maniac, for one – are much welcomed for the relief they provide, but also throw into sharper contrast the sudden barrage of events when it starts up again.  And the summing up at the end – where, by crikey, doesn’t Beale ever earn that titular adjective – is both rather verbose and unfortunately lacking in the devastating surprise I was expecting: while I didn’t catch his guilty party, it’s partly because I had my own one in mind and expected that to be the twist…but, no, there simply is no twist.  There’s also – and this isn’t anything against the book, of course – no impossibility, despite what it says in the synopsis.  There’s easily enough here to warrant your time and attention anyway, but I’d hate anyone to get to the end and be livid about this, and so I mention it.

Penny went on to write better and the genre has produced better, but if you’ve read him elsewhere and are willing to allow some leeway this is a very diverting and impressively rigorous  first stab, batter, hide, misdirect, and baffle.  The complexity of the plot he has going here commends it above the usual, and anyone who likes a convoluted puzzle will frankly be in hog heaven.

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19 thoughts on “#49: The Talkative Policeman (1936) by Rupert Penny

    • Policeman’s Evidence – which I’ve previously reviewed here to provide an answer to this exact question – is, of the ones I’ve read, the most classically ‘country house’ and so a great place to start. Not sure if Jonathan is around to vouch for this, but he enjoyed it and would hopefully back me up…[cue Jonathan]:

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      • Hello! I purchased ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ and ‘Sealed Room Murder’ on the strength of JJ’s recommendation, and I definitely enjoyed ‘Policeman’s Evidence’, despite its horribly shocking pink cover. The first thirty pages or so slightly grated on me insofar as the narrative was at times ungrammatical – spoken rather than written – but the narrator’s voice was entertaining, and grew on me gradually. As for the mystery, it was certainly intricate, layered, even convoluted – but I like my puzzles fiendishly constructed.

        JJ – I see you’re finally getting round to Paul Halter’s ‘Picture from the Past’. 🙂 Is ‘Death Invites You’ meant to be released anytime soon…?

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        • Many thanks for that resounding endorsement – hopefully that helps, Kate!

          Regarding Death Invites You, I think it’s due the start of next year. This review in Publisher’s Weekly (http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-518668-75-3) says February, so maybe it’s still as much as two months away…but anything more certain than that I have no idea or insight. It’s worth the wait, though, however far away it is!

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  1. The Talkative Policeman has been languishing on Mt. To-Be-Read for years, because Sealed Room Murder was, overall, a huge let down. Sure, the locked room aspect was clever enough, but the floor plan gave away the crux of the trick and the tedious build-up to the murder seemed to drag on forever. Some considerable editing and cutting could’ve resulted in a classic novella, but as a full-length novel it failed to invite me back to Penny’s work.

    However, your review has piqued my interest and will bump it up a couple of places.

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    • I remember being rather surprised to see SRM on your ‘locked rooms to avoid’ list some time back, TC, but then that’s the beauty of individual taste. I wonder if another of Penny’s impossibilities might play more to your interests and hook you in…either way, I hope you a) find time to give him another go and b) find him more to your liking second time around!

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  2. February seems like a long wait… I might have to indulge in either ‘Tiger’s Head’ or ‘Invisible Circle’ in the meantime! Going back to Rupert Penny, what would you recommend after ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ and ‘Sealed Room Murder’?

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    • Oh, by that point you can read whatever takes your fancy, as you’ll already have an idea of how good he is. The only other one of his I’ve read is Policeman’s Holiday (which, of course, I loved…will review at some point) so I can recommend nothing else from direct experience. It’s my plan to go through the remainder in chronological order, just as soon as I’m able to fit him in amidst Norman Berrow, Walter Masterman, Kelley Roos, Juanita Sheridan, John Dickson Carr, the British Library reprints, June Wright, Miles Burton, Max Afford, whatever LRI put out, the remaining Agatha Chrisies…aaaah, ’tis a tough life, to be sure!

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      • Thanks to you, and Curtis Evans and everyone over at GAD FB, my Kindle is STUFFED with books by Punshon, and McCloy and five other authors I can’t remember, PLUS I’m about to receive Carr’s The Hollow Man in the mail AND I’m set to re-read Brand’s Tour de Force PLUS I still want to order my first Halter (it’s between The Fourth Door and The Invisible Circle) and the Penny sounds good too! What am i supposed to do with all these TBRs????? Happy holidays!

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        • Haha, well I may be able to help you a little bit there, Brad: delay the Halter and wait for Death Invites You at the start of next year…it’s pretty much the perfect introduction to him, and a great one for anyone new to impossible crimes. That should ease things for a little while at least…!

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  3. Pingback: Sealed Room Murder (1941) by Rupert Penny | crossexaminingcrime

  4. Pingback: #85: Policeman’s Holiday (1937) by Rupert Penny | The Invisible Event

  5. Pingback: #187: Policeman in Armour (1937) by Rupert Penny | The Invisible Event

  6. Hey JJ, I’ve finally got round to reading ‘Talkative Policeman’ – in keeping with my preference for leaving Penny’s mature works to the end. It was slightly long for my tastes, somewhat tediously procedural in approach – but I still enjoyed it. In fact, I think I’m undecided as to whether I like this less than ‘Policeman’s Holiday’. Of the three Penny novels I’ve read, which are the three you’ve formally reviewed, ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ clearly has the best mystery, and ‘Policeman’s Holiday’ has the strongest writing/ characterisation – but I think ‘Talkative Policeman’ has a better puzzle than ‘Policeman’s Holiday’. While Beale was going on (and on and on and on) in the final few chapters, there were one or two moments when I felt like hitting my forehead for not spotting critical aspects of the solution.

    Thanks for the review! I was tempted to give this title a miss, but the very last line of your review pushed me to buy a copy. 😀

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    • Yeah, this is a trifle long, and ye gods does Beale ever go on at the end (mind you, we’re warned about that up front!). But the Mystery is very strong — perhaps slightly below PH for my tastes, but easily more streamlined and suitably complex (I love the bit with the shed, great application of logic).

      Glad you enjoyed it, now onwards to his later and hopefully more accomplished works!

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      • Things can only go upwards from here, since you gave a higher rating for ‘Policeman in Armour’? 🙂 I think I might dip into one of the non-Beale works next: either ‘Sweet Poison’ or ‘She Had to Have Gas’ (inappropriately titled, but Fender Tucker’s favourite).

        I agree that ‘Policeman’s Holiday’ was the more accomplished novel, but there wasn’t that moment where I had to kick my own shins for missing the significance of a clue. In contrast, there was plenty of that in ‘Policeman’s Evidence’, and some of that in ‘Talkative Policeman’. 😀

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