#300: The Lucky Policeman (1938) by Rupert Penny

luckypoliceman315A 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.

Post number 300 — woo, get me — and it’s a return to one of my favourite discoveries of recent years: the Gordian knot that is Penny’s particular brand of plotting, enriched as it is by a Norman Berrow-esque talent for sly observation that stops the intellect on display making everything a bit too Early Queen to be enjoyable.  Admit it, the Queens would never have their sleuths ordering beer from a waiter in a low-rent pub-cum-hotel in this manner:

He eyed them pessimistically, pocketed the coin without interest, flicked the largest crumb on the table into Tony’s lap, and slowly took himself away by the longest possible route.  When they grew tired of waiting, Dickie went to fetch the beer himself.

Elsewhere, Tony’s awed response to a local character’s lunch, or the description of an old woman “whose false teeth were notably some dentist’s failure”, or the local busybody flustering out of scene and leaving behind “an impression of good natured commonness momentarily encountered” belie the claims of dullard prose that might conceivably be leveled at these pure-plot undertakings, but as ever such denegations are in the eye of the beholder.  For me there’s a wonderful humanity at the heart of Penny’s writing that reminds me, here especially, of Christie in his use of types that might — or might not — be used to lull you into false trust.

But, well, in fairness it might just be that Penny is putting more time into this sort of thing now.  An early chapter details the workings of a country house where a future victim lives, as we follow them through a series of actions that end in their death.  Then, the later discovery of that body is shot through with pathos (“he turned away, revolted, and walked apart from the rest as steadily as he could”) that is felt a touch more keenly for having seen into their life.  It’s uncommon enough in this genre, and part of how Penny distinguishes himself for me.  Elsewhere, and having recently discussed on this blog the apparent absence of the First World War from a lot of GAD, we get a policeman searching the woods for the escaped madman who reflects that jumping at shadows is “no way for a man to behave who had sat for two hours in a shell-hole in no man’s land dodging machine gun bullets”.  Nothing more is done with that, but it’s again an uncommon moment in this sort of undertaking.

And it helps that Beale and Purdon, at the heart of it all, feel so much like actual people who know each other and their jobs well.  For all Beale’s carting his amateur friend around to all manner of crime scenes, “the professional was in a different and far higher class” — witness the moment when, having listened at length to the very plausible theories of one character, Beale is not afraid in his own mind to label them “a stupid mixture of hasty suspicions and violent imaginings, backed up by very little in the way of convincing evidence”.  Rarely would your GAD police sleuth be this savage — if only in private — and it betokens the weariness and sense of futility Beale feels, yes, but also shows his commitment to the rigour that makes him so good at what he does.

And the plot?  Well, it is of course very clever.  We benefit from things unfolding in a deliberate way so as not to bombard you with a list of seventeen objects, the fifth and eighth of which are relevant, and I still doubt you’ll pick the guilty party.  Beale’s self-censure come the end that gives the book its title is perhaps a little unearned — like the best puzzle plots, it’s obvious in retrospect — especially given the classical lines along which this unfolds.  It lacks a truly stellar hook to sweep you away, but for construction and commitment alongside growth as an author this is pretty hard to fault.  It may even be the best place to start for anyone who is thinking of giving Penny a go — in lieu of an impossibility, the range of complications to be faced is a great primer in how to set up and resolve such issues.  And, once again, come the Challenge to the Reader you do actually possess the knowledge to solve the thing.

I bloody well bet that you don’t, though…

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

The novels of Rupert Penny, published by Ramble House:

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) [Noah’s review @ Noah’s Archives]
7. Sweet Poison (1940) [Noah’s review @ Noah’s Archives]
8. Sealed Room Murder (1941)
9. Cut and Run [writing as Martin Tanner] (1941)

~

I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Performer (Clown/Dancer/Etc).  There’s one in the bottom left-hand corner of the back cover of every RH book…

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Murder in the Museum because both prominently feature characters who have a connection to America.

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50 thoughts on “#300: The Lucky Policeman (1938) by Rupert Penny

  1. Thanks for the review, which I’ve been eagerly anticipating since last Thursday. I was hoping for a breakthrough novel that would revive the excellencies of ‘Policeman’s Evidence’, but alas… Then again, four out of five stars is a very respectable rating. 🙂

    “It lacks a truly stellar hook to sweep you away, but for construction and commitment alongside growth as an author this is pretty hard to fault.”

    Which sounds like your main qualification of your praise for the last two or three Penny novels you reviewed? How would ‘Lucky Policeman’ stack up against ‘Policeman’s Holiday’ and ‘Policeman’s Armour’?

    I dedicate the following line of your review to Kate and Brad: “It may even be the best place to start for anyone who is thinking of giving Penny a go…”

    😀

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    • Policeman in Armour is an astonioshingly intricate piece fo work that is very careful and feels very finely poised throughout. This, by comparison, feels mush looser and more confident — there’s not one central moment where you can spot the charade that’s going on, so Penny’s happier throwing little thing after little thing at you in the knowledge that you’re exceedingly unlikely to twig.

      So the intentions are very different. It’s rathre more akin to Policeman’s Holiday, which has that same lever of construction, but this is less roccoco in its complexity: if that novel had faults, it’s the need to remember fourteen different things to make sense of it all, whereas the plotting here is much smoother, much more cleverly developed, and far gentler in how it reveals itself.

      That’s why I think this is a good place for starters, as it feels more traditional and so would be a less jarring introduction to Penny. The poisedness of Armous commend it in many ways, but the confidence here takes some beating. It feels like a watershed book — I already know two of the novels he wrote after this are absolutely wonderful, and I have a suspicion that the others may be as well…

      So, er, I hope this helps 🙂

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      • “I already know two of the novels he wrote after this are absolutely wonderful…”

        Are you referring to ‘Cut and Run’ and ‘She Had to Have Gas’? Or ‘Sweet Poison’? 😀

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        • The ones I’ve read that were published after this are Policeman’s Evidence and Sealed Room Murder…linked above in the list of Penny novels.

          Poison and Gas (and technically Cut & Run, though I understand it’s a different style of book) are the only ones I have left to read now.

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  2. Your praise of Penny makes me eye my copy of The Talkative Policeman again, but it’s over 300-pages long, which is not an obstacle in itself, but I don’t want to slug through another ordeal like Sealed Room Murder.

    And are my eyes deceiving me or is that really the book cover of The Long Divorce under “next up”? You went from never reading it to reconsidering reading it and then actually reading it in less than a week. Less than a week!

    I hope you really like the book, because I want to tell you I told you so.

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    • I do think TTP is the weakest and hardest work of the Pennys I’ve read — see my review for further comments. It’s still a comprehensively-constructed puzzle plot that contains some wonderful moments, but it’s not going to convince you if you’re already going in unconvinced.

      As for TLD…it’s been hanging around for so long, and the assurances it got following that post are so earnest, that I now want to find out if I really was likely to be missing out. That potential stain on my TBR needs removing — plus, y’know, I know others will enjoy watching me be wrong in public. Because we all know how reluctant I am to admit that I’m ever wrong about anything, Hell, chances are I’ll just pretend to hate it purely so I don’t lose face…

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  3. This sounds absolutely wonderful – just the sort of book I love to sit down with on a cold night by the fire, holding my steaming cup of rococo. I will get right to it . . . as soon as I can get past Chapter One and a Half of Policeman’s Evidence.

    (Could Early Queen=Bad Penny?)

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    • It’s definitely fair to say that my Early Queen is your Penny, yes. Which, considering how much they overlap — respect for the institution of the police force, elaborately complex schemes, thin on the characterisation, dense with puzzle — is just damn weird, man…

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  4. Congratulations on your 300th post!! This is one of the Pennys I haven’t yet read, and your review makes me want to lash out and get it.
    I did actually review Sweet Poison more than five years ago (https://noah-stewart.com/2012/09/05/sweet-poison-by-rupert-penny/) … I’m not sure if I’d have a different opinion today but I probably would have expressed myself differently. Perhaps I’ll spend my next five years rewriting my first five years’ opinions LOL.

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    • Many thanks — as a fellow aficionado of Penny you’ll find much here to enjoy. I was planning on stringing out the last remaining books of his, but now I think I’m better off just reading them and finding out how good they actually are. There’s always rereading, after all, as my recent memory-hole on The Problem of the Green Capsule shows 🙂

      Thanks for the link, too, I shall add it above. I feel like we’re a pair of dusty curators, the last of our kind, carrying the lamp of Penny into the new millennium…

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    • Fabulous, do — Penny’s the puzzle plotter’s puzzle plotter, and at his best he’s marvellous. I’d put him up with Carr for genuine complexity and commitment, and everything I’ve read so far actually plays fair — not something that happens often!

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  5. Hmm, so your final paragraph somewhat addressed the question I planned on asking – where to start? Reading through some comments above, it seems that you suggest this one as being the most approachable. But is most approachable really best? Understandably, you don’t want a new reader to be turned off by Penny, but is there another title that you think is stronger, if less approachable?

    I’m somewhat struggling to resolve the notion of there being a difference between approachability and strongest. My gut reaction is that the best book tends to be the most approachable, but I’m sure that’s a naive assumption. It’s just that for the limited authors I’ve read, the two seem to overlap.

    I think I can come up with an example though – I’d rate JDC’s Till Death Do Us Part somewhere in his top 5 books for sure. However, my sister still complains to me about the whole solution to the impossibility. I’m the first to admit that it isn’t Carr’s strongest solution, but I don’t really think about it because the book provides so much more that I’m looking for (air tight mystery, constant discovery, cliffhanger chapter endings) – maybe because I’ve read so many of these types of mysteries. In that sense, perhaps TDDUP isn’t that approachable for an impossible crime novice, as the solution doesn’t hit home as strongly as others.

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    • Wow, Ben! You talk about classic mysteries with your SISTER?!?!? Nobody in my family – nobody I know personally – reads this stuff!! How lucky you are! 🙂

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      • Well, I’ve…pressured… her into reading about 15 of Carr’s better works – pretty much all of the ones you would expect. It’s interesting to get her takes on them as they often run counter to my expectation:
        -Wasn’t that enamored with The Judas Window
        -Preferred The Witch of the Low Tide’s solution to The White Priory Murders (both are footprints mysteries, read WPM first)
        -Wasn’t bothered by the solution to The Red Widow Murders
        -Agreed with me that The Problem of the Wire Cage is awesome

        I’ve also lent her several Christianna Brand books and she seems to be much more enthusiastic about them. With that said, I think she reads the books I lend her more out of a feeling of obligation…

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      • My sister, bless her heart, has a complete set of Phoebe Atwood Taylor that we collected together. She’s more into the modern cupcake cozy, but she does read this stuff. Okay, I suspect it’s all the years of me dealing in these books and her listening to me enthuse about various rarities, but still — I’m a lucky sibling.

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    • To my mind, approachability does not equal strength. An author’s best book is not necessarily the best book through which to first experience that author.

      Take some obvious examples: for Christie people will say And Then There Were None is best, but that’s not the book that best gives you an idea of what makes Agatha Christie so special, or gives the typical experience. Or take Carr, where The Hollow Man is undoubtedly a steadfast example of beautiful inctricacy in plotting…but, man, as your first novel by him it’s a lot of dust to swallow.

      Or, say, Paul Halter, who’s strongest translated work to date is probably The Tiger’s Head, but is best appreciated after making approaches the Death Invites You and others. I could probably give other examples, but it’s late and I’m very tired.

      And then, of course, there;s the small matter of subjectivity: any number of people will now jump on my choices for these authors…so, well, it becomes a difficult concept to pin down. I’d like to have a definitive answer, but I don’t think there can ever be one.

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      • Personally I’d start off someone who’d never read Penny with Sweet Poison. I would call it the most approachable of his books … there’s humour and an interesting background. And it’s the one I’ve read where it’s actually most possible that the murder happened in the way it’s described, without ascribing any insane motivations to anyone involved. No acrostics, no side excursions, just an interesting story. Sealed Room Murder is a great puzzle, but there aren’t any real people in it.

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        • I will be able to reinforce or repudiate this opinion only once I’ve read Sweet Poison, I’m afraid. But it sounds legit. Go with it.

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  6. Thanks for the notification that ‘Death in the House of Rain” has been released! As I was too impatient to wait for its release, I purchased another of Szu-Yen Lin’s novels in Chinese, and started on it. I daresay reading ‘Murder in the Ice Mirror Mansion’ compelled a recognition of my deteriorating grasp of Chinese – which in turn convinced me to get ‘Death in the House of Rain’ in English, so it’s now sitting in my Kindle. 🙂

    If ‘Murder in the Ice Mirror Mansion’ gets translated into English by LRI, I suspect you would, to borrow your phrase, be in hog heaven. I’ve not read ‘Sealed Room Murder’ yet, but from Kate’s comments about multiple floor charts, and your glowing review of it, I suspect she would dislike ‘Murder in the Ice Mirror Mansion’, and you would like it. (There, I managed to link my message to Rupert Penny to justify posting it on this thread… 😛 ) There are not one but *eight* impossible crimes – of which three form the background to the novel, while the other five feature in the actual plot. It’s ingenious, but exceptionally, even frighteningly, convoluted. I’m halfway through the explanation of the crime, and more than multiple diagrams have appeared…

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    • Multiple floor charts, several impossible crimes (4), ingenious and original solutions with details often complex requiring close attention while reading: all these apply to Death In The House Of Rain !
      I would advise readers to print out the floor charts and refer to them while reading Death In The House Of Rain, otherwise they will find it difficult to follow the story !
      Though it is well clued I doubt whether any reader will be able to guess either the methodology or the culprit(s) !

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    • I mean, I don’t have a thing about diagrams per se making the book good… 🙂 I suspect Kate read SRM on Kindle and found the placement of diagrams weird…I have no proof of that, but that’s my surmise.

      I saw the disgrams in the Kindler version of Death in the House of Rain and found myself hoping not too much referencing would be necessary, but Santosh’s comment has put the kibosh on that. Ah, well, I’ll cope. A fiendishly complex impossible crime tha requires particular attention paid to the layout of the house? Yeah, I’ll be fine…

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      • JJ, if it comforts you – even the diagrams for ‘Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion’, in hard copy, are somewhat challenging to process. Oh well. Let’s brace ourselves for ‘Death in the House of Rain’. >.<

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        • Now that I’ve finished ‘Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion’, I can confirm that there were even more diagrams in the remaining few chapters. >.< Still an ingenious, if somewhat (tediously?) convoluted, novel nonetheless.

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  7. Unfortunately Ramble House has stopped providing books including ebooks. Fender Tucker doesn’t even reply to emails. According to his web site, he has turned 70 and ” forgotten how to navigate the bookmaking sites.” He advises readers to obtain the books from other sources; the ebooks from Amazon kindle or Lulu but these have only a limited number of the ebooks which do not include Rupert Penny.

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    • Yeah, I saw that — kinda bummed, as it means I can’t get the two remaining ECR Lorac titles for anything like sensible money.

      But you can see it from his perspective: I imagine its been a pretty full-on job, producing and checking a lot of books — they’ve probably got about, what, 350 on their site + all the Keeler — over a good number of years. I imagine he’s sort of exhausted by and with it. We can be thakful for everything they’ve done to date — hell, I’d not have read Rupert Penny, Norman Berrow, Max Afford, Hake Talbot, Walter S, Masterman, Bruce Elliott, Nicholas Olde, and those two Loracs with them, plus extra curios like Devil’s Planet by Manly Wade Wellman, The Black Dark Murders by Robert O. Saber, and others besides.

      If Fender is slowing down operations, my main concern now is buying up the others books of theirs I want to read before they start to disappear a la Rue Morgue Press…!

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  8. Somehow I hadn’t heard of this writer before, yet I go back to your very first post and find him mentioned there! No idea how that happened…
    That little extract you included sold me on the book immediately. And given what you mentioned above, I immediately panic-bought 4 other books as well from various other extinct publishers…
    I really wanted to read The Spaniard’s Thumb (what a premise!), but I see that the price is now too steep for me to be able to justify it.

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    • The ebook version of The Spaniard’s Thumb is available at Lulu Books for about 9 dollars. (Though it used to be available at Ramble House for only 6 dollars).

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      • Yeah, Lulu is now the best source for anything RH, I think. Not everything is available through there as an ebook — not everything RH have produced is available there, full stop — but their range is good and their service pretty bloody good.

        Allow me to mention that I can’t get the other two RH Lorac titles there and that makes me sad, but that’s my only complaint with them and the books available through them.

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        • Yes, the other 2 Lorac titles are available at Lulu only in hardcover at about 33 dollars each plus shipping !

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        • Cheers folks, will nab it there! Probably could have saved a bit by going there first, but oh well! I’ll have a nice book I can hold in my hands as compensation.

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        • I gotta say, the easier it becomes to just whoosh a book magically into my futurisitc hand library, the more I appreciate the process of ordering, waiting for, and receiving and actual physical book. I’m a fan of both, but I feel like I acknowledge the exostence of my tree books much more now.

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    • Haha, panic buying is the way to go…after all, how do you know they’ll be around for any length of time…???!!

      Pennt]y’s been a favourite of mine since I first read him (Sealed Room Murder was my first experience), so I’m delighted to think that others are giving him a go. It’s only me and Noah who seem to’ve read him in any quantity, but I’m sure there must be others out there. And if they can’t find us, well, then we’ll just create some new ones… 😉

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