#187: Policeman in Armour (1937) by Rupert Penny

policeman-in-armourI 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).

This is about a pure Golden Age detection as you can get — a man is discovered dead on the eleventh page, his killer named on the 209th, and joining these two points is the kind of thorough, intelligent jubilee of an investigation that chases down every single lead and loose end in a brilliantly rigorous way.  Penny gives you a baffling murder — a man stabbed in the back in a room which no-one could have entered and exited without being seen or heard — and then sets about working his way through the possibilities without needing to throw in Exciting Incidents that dilute and weaken his focus.  No second or third murders spice things up, no overwhelming coincidences crop up to explain away certain actions or push the plot forrader, we simply explore this seeming impossibility and the surrounding mysterious events with a steady head and the clear-sighted awesomeness of Chief Inspector Edward Beale steering the way.

Beale and his cohorts — jack of all trades Sergeant ‘Horsey’ Matthews and amateur hanger-on Tony Purdon — are one of the key things that set these books apart.  They are serious and intelligent men who go about their business in a quick-witted and insightful manner: Beale in particular is a fabulous blend of inspired insight and banging-his-head-against-a-wall doggedness, feeling both a realistic and reassuring presence to have at the head of such an unconventional setup.  And they’re funny, too, but not in that Craig Rice/Kelley Roos way that seems beyond he scope of mere mortals; they’re funny in the way normal people are quick with a witticism, or with a sharp turn of wry disparagement:

“Come to inspect the gas meter, [ma’am],” said Tony.

“Which of us do you mean by that?”

“I said meter, not bag.”

Or:

“She’s probably engaged.”

“She wasn’t wearing a ring,” said his friend.

“Bah!  You talk like a Victorian grandmother,” rejoined Beale rudely.  “No ring, no engagement — no heavy mourning, no regret.  Nothing counts if it doesn’t show, and if I balanced half a crown on my head I’d be half a king.”

The plot is very clever — there’s a certain amount of who-was-where-when at the start, but stick with it — and I kicked myself when it was all laid out, which (let’s be honest) is what we want to happen in this kind of thing.  But what it undoubtedly lacks is razzamatazz; you will find none of Christie’s surprisingly sudden twists of circumstance, nor Carr’s eye for an immediately arresting setup, and in this regard is very much one for the aficionado rather than the dabbler.  But, oh, you aficionadae will have a field day here.  The investigation is note-perfect, with plenty of room for rumination and speculation (at the halfway point, Beale outlines the case against the person who seems the only obvious suspect and then dismantles it beautifully in the next breath), and those of you for who these purlieus of detective fiction are regular hunting grounds will encounter many delights.

There’s definitely a further-increased clarity of plot here in progression from previous book Policeman’s Holiday, and Penny is developing some picturesque turns of phrase: “More policemen have been taken in by and honest-looking pair of eyes than crooks have been by and honest-looking pair of policemen” and the description of a reluctant witness who “would draw even further into herself, leaving him like a dog with a rolled-up hedgehog” being among my favourites.  It’s true that there is again no single moment where you can look back and slap yourself for being well and truly hoodwinked, but he does lead you astray with an assumption so carefully placed that I missed it until it was spelled out to me (possibly that’s just me being dim, though…), and I’m becoming quite a fan of this form of misdirection.  And the scheme is easy enough to understand once you see it, and I’m with Penny when he supposes in his Challenge to the Reader that perhaps one person in a hundred might figure this out ahead of time.  Very clever stuff, with all the clues there to see.

So, well, it’s not really tapping into the current zeitgeist for light and breezy detective fiction, and I wouldn’t start here with Penny unless you’re willing to give him at least two books sight unseen, but I do heartily and fully recommend it all the same.  Goddamn I wish there was more of this sort of stuff available; it’s precisely this kind of experience that makes me persevere through the Obelists Fly Highs of this world, and there’s just not enough brilliant, misleading, fair-play detective fiction around any more.  Well, here’s hoping this is a sign of things to come in 2017 (it’s okay, I know it isn’t…).

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

The novels of Rupert Penny:

1. The Talkative Policeman (1936)
2. Policeman’s Holiday (1937)
3. Policeman in Armour (1937)
4. The Lucky Policeman (1938)
5. Policeman’s Evidence (1938)
6. She Had To Have Gas (1939)
7. Sweet Poison (1940)
8. Sealed Room Murder (1941)
9. Cut and Run [writing as Martin Tanner] (1941)

~

I submit this book as my first entry in the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Any Other Animal.

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25 thoughts on “#187: Policeman in Armour (1937) by Rupert Penny

    • The more-recently listed books on the Ramble House website do have an option to buy them as ebooks (epub or mobi) which will be emailed to you…so I can believe they’d be willing to do the same with the older books even though it doesn’t explicitly say on on each page. I guess it’s a lot of titles to go back and put that in every single time!

      The current rate appears to be US$6.

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  1. I like Penny very much! I was thinking of giving this as a birthday present, but would need to read it first. Then again, I was waiting for your review before starting. 😀

    Is the reference to “armour” in the title a knightly allusion?

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  2. This is one of the three Pennys I have yet to read — I’m kind of saving it for my retirement LOL since, as you, I know there aren’t many more of these to be found. Sounds just as good as I’m expecting!

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    • I know, right? It’s weird how quickly I’ve become reluctant to finish these — they have plenty of reread value (and my memory for precise details gets muddier as my volume of reading has increased over the years) — but the idea of there being nothing completely new from Penny isn’t an appealing one at all.

      Mind you, I don’t think I’ve yet ‘finished’ an author who wrote more than, say, five books. I’ve got something like half of Carr to go, as I say above, but that’s been drawn out by frequent rereads, and pretty much anyone else I once read and no longer do I stopped reading through choice rather than necessity. Christie is going to be the one that really hits me, I think. I’ve been reading her for 16-odd years and have probably 2 more years of ‘new’ books left. Thank crikey I’ve got some to go back and reacquaint myself with; if they only option was the Hannah pastiches I might just stop altogether 😀

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  3. Your metaphor made me stop and examine my stool . . .

    I fully admit that I did not give a fair chance to Policeman’s Evidence. I really want to like this guy, since there ARE nine books (as opposed to only three of Rutland), but those first few pages seemed so boring . . .

    You, too, bing d on Christie – and Carr, for that matter, much to my regret. My only consolation here is that I only read the Dr. Fell books, so I do have quite a bit more Carr to savor, should I choose to do so.and I’ve even forgotten the solutions to some of the Fells! Huzzah!

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    • Certainly of the five Pennys I’ve read, I think Evidence is the one to start with — Holiday and Armour are more straight-ahead, Sealed Room Murder is wonderful but requires patience, and Talkative is possibly overlong and not fully tamed. They are each very-good-to-great in their own ways, but some are more so than others.

      So if you want to try Penny, my experience says you have the best book for being convinced. Now, if you persevere with that book and don’t enjoy it, don’t go out and buy five more. Possibly he’s just not the chap for you, much as I disliked Bleeding Hooks so read no further. I don’t want to feel morally responsible for another Paul halter Incident where I feel like I’m implicitly somehow forcing your hand into buying book after book in search of something that maybe ain’t there.

      Yes, you’re a grown man and capable of making your own decisions, and a life with no regrets is a like half-lived, but I just hate to see you putting yourself through such agonies… 😀

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        • I very much enjoyed ‘Policeman’s Evidence’, despite its rocky start. I found the first few chapters quite difficult to swallow, but things got better as the narrative progressed. The solution was certainly the crowning glory – one of the very few solutions that actually made me sit up and gasp inaudibly (is that an oxymoron?).

          In short, do give ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ another go! 😀

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  4. This sounds good but I’m wondering how this compares to early (and very dry) Ellery Queen where we see similarly see every step of an investigation in (exhausting) detail. It sounds like the writing is wittier here- is that how Penny sustains interest without any of Christie of Carr’s razzmatazz?

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    • Yes, the wittiness absolutely plays a part in making this a far more pleasant read, and Penny is much more human that that first tranche of Queens — his characters interact with, and are motivated by, recognisable emotional motivations and consequences. There’s a mistake made by one character in here that feels so perfectly easy, but which Queen in their Nationalities books would have turned into a five-page treatise on…well, the thing that goes wrong.

      Equally, a revelation late on is used to clear up one issue very simply and with a minimum of fuss, and it really enhances the collaborative nature of the investigation, too. The police help each other, Tony Purdon is simply an amateur rather than an unstoppable genius who races ahead of everyone, and when Beale makes the inferences and leaps that he does — and they’re a fairly regular feature of these books — he crucially brings other characters with him, or it is at least shown that other people were capable of the same insight and have reached a similar or supporting conclusion.

      It puts me in mind of Norman Berrows Lancelot Caolur Smith novels in the way the investigators are human and the characters feel like actual people, but Penny had a sharper eye for the straight-ahead detection. Berrow has Christie’s gift of sheer enjoyment, and Penny takes that same idea in a more Queen/Carr direction, if you like.

      Apologies, I have rather gone on, but I do so love these books and don’t just want to go GAH YOU MUST BUY THIS RRRARARARARAAAAA ETC, because I think people need to know what they’re getting… 🙂

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    • Of the five I’ve read, Policeman’s Evidence is also an impossible crime — only the first two, Talkative and Holiday, aren’t impossibilities (though, as I point out in my review of Talkative,the synopsis on the back of the book says that it’s an impossible crime…alas, not to be). Hoiliday is delightfully elaborate, and has some flourishes that are hard to explain at first, but stops short of full on impossibility.

      I really love Penny’s work, he is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years, and Ramble House have done detective fiction fans a genuine service by bringing him back. If you want to give him a go, I’d advise starting with Policeman’s Evidence for various rerasons, but if you’re willing to give him a bit of leeway you can start wherever you like, really.

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      • Thanks JJ, well seeing as Evidence is an impossible crime novel and your top recommendation sounds like the perfect place to start! Also, on another note, I just read She Died a Lady over christmas for the first time, and there was a very similar line to one you picked out about a man withdrawing into himself like a hedgehog that I really appreciated. It’s nice to see it used again in this context, and the ‘dog with a rolled up hedgehog’ adds a nice touch of macabre. Suffice to say, from what you have written in your review and having just read the other, they both beautifully describe the character/situation while also carrying forward the plotting. That I feel is always so wonderful as it’s so hard to get right.

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        • And it turns out that you can get it as an ebook for $6, too, so no need to break the bank in acquiring a copy…I love it when a plan comes together!

          For reasons that will become apparent soon-ish I’m imagining that I’ll be rereading She Died a Lady before too long; it’s a great book, just the most wonderful plot and insanely clever. So glad you enjoyed it. Have you read The Problem of the Green Capsule yet? Goddman, that’s an amazing book, and does a hugeamount of what you outline above…

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        • Thats great news, is that through the publishers? I am yet to read, or even own a copy of the Green Capsule, and it’s one of the ones I know less about, so thanks for the recommendation! I am currently half way through Till Death Do Us Part for the first time, which is another beast in terms of throwing you around all over the place.

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        • Yup, through the publishers — Fender Tucker, who runs Ramble House, has his email address on their website, so you can email him and request a copy…job done!

          TDDUP is just wonderful; have a look at my review when you’re done, because it will save me repeating myself here — but, oh, what a marvellous book!

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  5. Pingback: #190: A Smell of Smoke (1959) by Miles Burton | The Invisible Event

  6. Pingback: #210: The Golden Age of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction… | The Invisible Event

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