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.
“If a man’s mind be wandering,” said Francis Bacon, “let him study the mathematics”. Well, the mathematics take up an unreasonably large amount of my time as it is, and for me nothing helps my wandering mind quite like classic detective fiction. So, with 2016 having been an underwhelming year in books so far, and coming back off a 2 month hiatus with my hand injury, I’m keen to get a bit of enthusiasm back into my reading. Hence I shall spend the next little while focussing on the sure-fire hits in my collection: expect much Max Afford, Leo Bruce, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Paul Halter and others, as well as some classic locked room nonplussing, in the weeks to come while I try to reorient myself within my chosen enthusiasm.
And there’s frankly no better place to start than with the wonderful Rupert Penny, pen name of Ernest Charles Basil Thornett and puzzle plotter extraordinnaire who has been brought back into print by the wonderful Ramble House. This is the second of Penny’s Chief-Inspector Edward Beale books, and concerns the death of a philanthropist and puzzle-writer found hanging by the neck from a tree in the Dorset woodland. Clearly it must be suicide, but the man was well-known locally and no motive for suicide can be unearthed. It seems an unlikley accident, however, so the only other option must be murder. Right? With the locals uncertain, Beale is asked to cancel the leave he has planned and head down to Dorset to investigate. And, of course, since his good friend Tony Purdon was due to go on holiday with him, he might as well tag along too…
I was recently reading a book on the promise of it providing a locked room murder, to which I am rather partial. When said murder arrived, it took on this approximate form: a large indoor hall with a free-standing stone chapel inside it which has one door and no windows or other points of ingress, a crowd witnesses a lady entering said chapel – which is deserted – alone and the doors are shut, only for them to be opened some time later and said lady found beaten, bruised and devoid of life. It’s moderately classic in its setup and should therefore provide some interest, but once I read the details of the crime I gave up on the book and will not return to it (in fact, it’s already down the charity shop).
This is not due to any squeamishness on my part, or a particular problem I had with the writing or the characters – both were fine, if unexceptional – but rather just because it just wasn’t interesting. It is hard to put this in words, which is why I imagine this post may run rather longer than usual, but there were simply no features of intrigue to me in that supposedly impossible murder. And so I got to thinking…forget plot or prose or atmosphere, take away all the context of an impossible crime, particularly forget about the solutions: what makes an interesting fictional impossibility? Continue reading →
Aaah, 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. Continue reading →
I will probably put this very poorly, so bear with me.
I am an Agatha Christie fan. I am also, you may have noticed, a fan of John Dickson Carr, and of Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce, Rupert Penny, Kelley Roos, and Constance & Gwenyth Little. What these detective fiction writers have in common is two-fold: firstly they are all dead, so their output is now a fixed and known quantity, and secondly it is my express intention to read everything they ever published in the crime fiction sphere. In some cases this may not be achievable – though with the recent increase in GA reprints it’s to be hoped that these will be picked up before too long – but I intend to give it my best shot nonetheless.
If you’ve never bought a house on the questionable basis of a 300-year-old document implying the miserly, hunchbacked previous owner might possibly have hidden a marvellous treasure trove somewhere thereabouts, well, you must not be independently wealthy. You’ll also, then, have never invited various family and hangers-on down to said house to engage in a search invoking the types of ciphers that would give Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon a damp counterpane and – consequently – never had to deal with the aftermath of a suicide-that’s-probably-murder in a locked, treble-bolted and exitless room.
Thankfully for you, however, all these things happened to Major Francis Adair, and Tony Purdon and Chief-Inspector Edward Beale were on hand to relay it, albeit through the pen of Rupert Penny, the pseudonym of Ernest Basil Charles Thornett (who would go on to publish one book under another nom de plume, Martin Tanner – are you keeping up?). Policeman’s Evidence is the third of Penny’s novels, available thanks to the continued superlative efforts of Fender Tucker’s Ramble House, and it’s probably the most classically-constructed of his books that I’ve read, as involved and well-planned a puzzle as you’ll find from this era. An attack on a member of the household hints that a disgruntled ex-employee might be lurking suspiciously and with harmful intent, plenty of possibly-blameless-but-possibly-significant interactions occur, and everything is laid out with scrupulous fairness in time for the challenge to the reader to solve the puzzle before Beale lays his hand on the perpetrator.
Simple criteria: novels only, readily available, not conceived in the fertile ground of John Dickson Carr’s imagination. I’ve also restricted the impossible crime to being the comission of the murder – people stabbed or shot while alone in a room, effectively – more to help reduce the possible contenders than anything else. Several stone cold classics are absent through the inclusion of other invisible events but that’s a future list (or five…).
Carr – doyen of the impossible crime, responsible for more brilliant work in this subgenre than any other three authors combined – will eventually get his own list (or five…), I just have to figure out how to separate them out; restricting it to five novels was hard enough for this list, but if you’re looking to get started in locked room murders these would be my suggestions: