Sealed Room Murder, by Rupert Penny (1941)

sealroommurderIn a review from four years ago of another Penny mystery, found here, I’ve spoken of just how scarce and expensive the works of Rupert Penny have been, historically. His nine mysteries (one as by “Martin Tanner”) have all commanded immense prices in the booksellers’ marketplace; the one paperback I ever found, seen to the left, sells today for more than US$100. And the first editions are astronomical.

It’s hard to understand why, at this remove. Their high prices used to be based on scarcity, since there were so few copies of any Penny novel ever printed, and only seldom any paperback editions. Everyone was crazy to read them because they were so scarce. Now they’re all available from Ramble House in a POD edition in trade or hardcover formats. As a connoisseur of such scarcities, once I managed to acquire them … they just don’t seem to have the excellence one would expect. They’re a little bit off the wall and a little bit incompetent, simultaneously. This specific volume, however, does seem to have stood the test of time and may just be the best one.

WARNING: This post concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

Douglas Merton is the nephew of the owner of a firm of private enquiry agents, and works for his uncle as what we would today call a private investigator. The firm is hired (in August, 1939, just before the outbreak of WWII) by the wealthy, unpleasant, and hugely overweight Mrs. Harriet Steele, for the purpose of finding out which of the unpleasant relatives in her household has been playing some rather nasty pranks upon her and her possessions. Mrs. Steele, we soon learn, was — many years and many, many pounds of avoirdupois ago — once the love object of Douglas Merton’s uncle when he was much younger and both were music hall performers. Hence the uncle’s willingness to take the case, although the firm’s focus is generally a more sedate insurance practice. Uncle Thomas is distinctly out of love with the 215-pound Harriet, but feels he owes her one from the days when he was a comedian and she was part of a roller-skating act.

The household consists of the widowed Mrs. Steele and her brother George, also a retired music hall performer, and the late Mr. Steele’s large group of relations; a mother and three sisters, one of whom is a widow with two adult children. What with a few servants, the list of possible suspects is nine people long. One of those nine has been doing unpleasant things like cutting a large hole in Mrs. Steele’s expensive mink coat, and pouring ink on a drawerful of expensive underthings. Merton’s job is to move into the unhappy household and find out who is doing these things and possibly why.

Because of that plot device so beloved of mystery writers, the strangely-conceived will of the late Mr. Steele, Mrs. Steele must provide room and board for all of her husband’s relations as long as they choose to live in her big old house. If Harriet dies, they split the deceased Mr. Steele’s large estate among themselves. If they leave, they lose their interest in the estate. It soon becomes apparent to Merton that Harriet hates her relatives and they return her hatred with compound interest, but no one can afford to leave. There’s a considerable amount of infighting among the unhappy family members also.

In fact, the plot goes into considerable detail about who hates whom and why, and their past histories, etc. The wicked pranks continue, including the defacement of some parquet flooring of which Harriet is very fond, and as a result she has had the lock on her bedroom door changed. Merton is not close to discovering the culprit; his investigations are more into the relationships among the family members, and he’s sidetracked by falling in love with Harriet’s beautiful young niece Linda.

2528One night, Merton and Linda are both decoyed down into the cellars, by forged notes purporting to be from each other; each is knocked unconscious and Harriet’s clothes are mostly removed. (I mention this because it is very unusual for the lurid Good Girl Art cover of a paperback of the period to be accurate to the story, as you can see at the head of this essay.) They spend the evening locked in the cellar and when they’re discovered in the morning, it’s to the news that Harriet has been stabbed to death the previous night by someone using enormous force. And, in a plot device so beloved of mystery readers, Harriet’s corpse is found inside her locked bedroom, all the keys of which are accounted for. It’s a classic locked-room mystery.

The murder itself is discovered at the 143-page mark of a 219-page book, but you can see it coming a mile away; the combination of the desire to inherit and the mutual acrimony that fills the household lead irresistibly to murder. Given that Merton can fill in Inspector Beale and his sidekick Tony Purdon more completely than any Scotland Yard detective can usually expect, the actual detection doesn’t take very long and the crime is solved, once Inspector Beale figures out how the locked-room mystery was constructed.

Why is this worth your time?

sealed-room-murderThis book will be of particular interest only to a few small groups of readers, and I can identify them for you easily. If you’re addicted to the classic “locked room mystery”, you may have already heard of this and tried to find it. The solution to this is exceptionally difficult, but scrupulously fairly clued within the novel.  Reading this novel will be pretty much essential to tick off your list of the most significant Golden Age locked room mysteries.

If you’re a fan of the Golden Age mystery in general, you may enjoy this; you won’t be ecstatic, but you will be amused. It has rather the flavour of a Ngaio Marsh novel; I say this because the focus is on the personalities of a group of unpleasant people trapped in a restricted setting, strung together with a mawkish and not especially believable love story, and Marsh has written that mystery more than once. (Overture to Death comes to mind.) It also reminded me of Marsh because there is a big sag in the novel as the author introduces the characters and their individual personalities and backgrounds, and the action more or less slows down to a crawl while the stage is set. Marsh is well-known, at least to me, for that problem of construction. However, unlike Marsh, the sag in Sealed Room Murder happens before the commission of the murder; in the traditional Act One/Two/Three structure of this novel, Act One is far too long, Act Two is uncharacteristically abbreviated, and Act Three is a mere 20 pages in which Inspector Beale Explains It All.  This is a contrast to Marsh and some of her contemporaries, where the murder happens early on and Act Two is long and drawn-out as the detective interviews all the suspects.  So the construction is not especially good, but at least it’s different than the usual run of such mysteries.

However, the fan of the classic Golden Age mystery will find everything here to delight the connoisseur of the form. There is a map of the house, and a couple of detailed maps of the locked bedroom; a chart of how and where various people’s possessions were lost or damaged, possibly by the prankster; and, in the book’s finale, no fewer than three diagrams showing exactly what was done and how. There is also the classic “Challenge to the Reader”; at a specific point, the author breaks the fourth wall and poses three questions to the reader. (My advice is that knowing the answers is not likely to help you very much; the first two, at least, are irrelevant to the determination of guilt. But you probably won’t be able to answer them unless you know howdunit.)

One of my strongest interests in Golden Age detective fiction these days is social history; I find that the most interesting thing in these novels for me these days is not so much whodunit, or as here howdunit, but how much it costs to bribe a housemaid (a “fiver”, which doesn’t sound like much but actually might be a couple of weeks’ wages for a servant), and what you wear when you are a 5’2″ 215-pound woman with lots of money, and not very good taste.

Penny has been accused elsewhere, and I’d certainly chime in on the pronouncement, of being a tone-deaf writer. He writes in complete English sentences, but his plots are always much more important to the narrative than his characterizations and his characters are often cardboard people doing ridiculous things to further a complicated plot. But he occasionally hits the characterization nail squarely on its head, as here:

“She was bulky, but not positively bulging. Her fair hair, its colour patently artificial, peeped out coyly from under her blue hat. Below her unbuttoned beaver coat was a white frock which drew attention to her heavy bosom by a series of irritating tucks and pleats. Her eyes were green, set rather deep and unpleasantly hard. She regarded you as if she were calculating the price of your honesty, but that may have been because she was short-sighted. Her lips were designed to minimize the fullness of her face, and vividly matched her enamelled fingernails; her hand felt sticky, and she exuded a noticeable scent of lilac.”

And a few lines later, in a delightful turn of phrase, “her voice a rich contralto erected upon a cockney subsoil.” Honestly, I had a clearer picture of the unpleasant Mrs. Steele than I have of the protagonists of many current cozy mysteries.

There’s another beautifully observed moment of female dress in a chapter very near the end. Merton sees a slatternly housemaid kneeling on some stairs and observes: “I couldn’t help but notice, with distaste, that she rolled her stockings in the American fashion so that they finished very little above the knee.” Okay, that one completely loses me — do English women roll them much higher, so that men cannot see the tops of them (or those mysterious objects, suspender-belts)? There’s a class-based hairsplitting going on here that I can’t grasp. But it shows that Penny was at least trying to display some accuracy in depicting some tiny point of “which classes wear which clothes when” that would be meaningful to his audience. Unless among women’s fiction of the period or assiduous social reconstruction, those sorts of distinctions are likely to never be available to the modern audience.

Yes, Penny may legitimately be thought of as being a tone-deaf writer, mostly because his plots are just so damned improbable. The characters must act in ridiculous ways, motivated in the most absurd ways, because they have to act to make the mechanics of this plot work. I won’t give you any of the details of what happens here in a puzzle sense, because that is the main pleasure of the novel for most of its consumers, but really of all the ways that human ingenuity could kill this unpleasant lady and hope to get away with it, the actual method used here is … insane. There is no way that sensible humans put together things in this way. And I can’t say if it’s only a characteristic of the two books by this author that I’ve looked at in depth, but in both plot structures there is a repeating element whereby the plot’s complexity is doubled by the chance actions of a non-murderous character. That has a strong odour of what I call “mystery cement” — put in to make things harder. You can’t make believable characters, or even remotely believable characters, by having them act like maniacs to make the plot twists come off.

But I must say there is some hellishly complicated plotting here. All the necessary elements are presented to the reader, some more subtly than others. (Believe it or not, there’s a secondary one in the description of Harriet quoted above; she’s short-sighted.) I’m not sure if the murder plot would actually work the way it’s described, but it’s not ridiculously impossible; once you have it, it’s easy to see how Penny created the weird family around it and brought it to life.  It’s not the subtlety of Agatha Christie, where plot and character mesh so delicately, but it is a first-rate second-rate subtlety that is rare for this writer.

I won’t say that you will read Penny for the excellence of his prose, or the insightfulness of his social observations; nevertheless those things are there, in this novel more than others. I will say that you might read Penny because he’s a very rare author in the locked-room mystery category, and a minor classic (at the B- or C+ rank) of a minor Golden Age author.  And I suspect you might even enjoy him, if you relax and overlook the clunkiness and improbabilities!

My favourite edition

My favourite edition is the Collins White Circle Canada paperback shown at the top of this essay; I love the cheerfully lurid and delightfully unsophisticated CWCC covers and this is a prime example. The bondage aspect makes this particular edition quite collectible and I see one today on ABE for a total of about US$100 including postage. I don’t actually have this edition at this point in time, although I have owned a copy; I scooped this picture from the internet. My own edition is the Ramble House trade paper in bright chartreuse shown above.

There is a single hardcover in jacket of Penny’s The Talkative Policeman today and honestly, I am surprised to see it as low as US$155 (120 pounds) plus shipping from the UK. I expect the low price is due to it being a second edition. No other hardcovers appear to be currently for sale.  The facsimile jacket of the first edition of this novel shown above is merely a tantalizing hint at something that doesn’t come on the market often — I’d think in the US$500 range. Compared to that you could have a copy of all nine of the Ramble House reprints and a bottle of good Scotch to drink while you’re reading them, but suit yourself.

Sweet Poison, by Rupert Penny

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Title: Sweet Poison

Author: Rupert Penny, a pseudonym of Ernest Basil Charles Thornett

Publication Data:  Originally published 1940, Collins Crime Club (UK), no ISBN.  This edition, trade paperback, Ramble House, 2009.  ISBN 9781605431901.

This is an Inspector Beale mystery by an author whose work is so scarce, it is nearly legendary — Rupert Penny (pseudonym of Ernest Thornett).  Apparently he was only published in small-run fragile wartime editions in England and reprinted in small-run fragile paperbacks in Canada and Australia, all associated with the “White Circle” imprint.  But it is not merely scarcity that he has to recommend him, it is a certain indefinable quality of — loopiness.  They have found a home in reprint recently with Ramble House, and I have to say it’s a natural fit.  Ramble House is the champion and archivist of Harry Stephen Keeler, the loopiest of them all, and they seem to cherish old mysteries and crime fiction with a certain bizarre je ne sais quoi.

The loopiness comes in many forms.  For one, Penny was a constructor of bizarre plots that involved the classic locked room/impossible crime format.  But his mysteries always have a strained air of “constructedness”, where the plot must go in odd and unbelievable directions and the characters strain credulity in order to generate the situation where the corpse is found in that impossible situation.  John Dickson Carr, the acknowledged master, did it with a whiff of the supernatural and determinedly ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control.  Penny, I suspect, started with the end and worked his way back to the beginning as best he could.

Another major source of loopiness is the novels’ determination to present England, the land of stiff upper lips, hearty matrons and “jolly hockey sticks”.  The novels are so embedded in the English milieu that they frequently veer over the line of inadvertent parody; what a friend once described as the “three pen’orth of chocs a fortnight come Michaelmas” school of writing.  Penny is constantly trying to present character through word choices in dialogue, usually a good idea, and one needs to be a master of the English idiom to follow some of the nice distinctions he is making in social class and education.

And the loopiness extends to the further reaches of the more unusual formats of publishing detective fiction.  Penny novels frequently have maps, charts, and diagrams, and the conceits extend to the inclusion of an Ellery Queenian “Challenge to the Reader” in each novel, whereby the action stops, the fourth wall is broken, and the reader is invited to agree that at this stage of the game he has enough information to conclusively solve the mystery.

So, with the imperfectly-described quality of oddity in place, this offering takes place against the backdrop of a quintessentially English prep school.  An unusual technique is employed, in that the murder is delayed until perhaps the middle of the book; the first half is spent establishing the territory and the characters.  I have to say, it is not time wasted.  I am occasionally the type of reader who wishes that an author would quit with the precious description of the countryside and just get on with the bloodbath, but here, as always with Penny, I was content to enjoy the quotidian workings of a veddy Briddish prep school and enjoy the plot’s knots constricting slowly.

To boil it down: the headmaster has a favourite boy, a rather senior one in the school’s hierarchy, whom he forgives offences and defends against criticism by other masters and students.  The Head is himself no prize (he’s a petty martinet), nor is the slovenly school, and the staff members have a number of legitimate axes to grind against management and organization.  The favourite boy is a greedy brat who stuffs candy into his mouth at any and every opportunity, and the reader is not surprised when he is found dead beside a poisoned block of chocolate-covered marzipan.

There is much who-would-have and who-could-have in the next chapters, but it becomes obvious that the crime is quite impossible; those with motive have no opportunity, and vice versa.  Inspector Beale must work out the crime that was supposed to have happened before he can truly understand the murder that occurred, and when he does so, the murderer confesses and the book is over.  Some will call this a “trick”; to my mind, it’s the kind of thinking that would be needed in a situation like this, that is elevated above the Miss Scarlet in the Conservatory with the Lead Pipe type of problem.  Essentially, something went wrong with a clever plot, and this unusual thought process is what would be required in the real world to solve such a problem.  Admittedly, there are the trappings of unreality, but the core of this book is perhaps what would actually happen if the police were confronted with a situation as unusual as this.

I suggest that you’ll find this book extremely satisfying if (a) you are an aficionado of the Golden Age puzzle mystery and are running out of new masters whose work you can enjoyably explore; (b) if you like a good old-fashioned British mystery where the aristos frolic immorally and the lower classes tug their forelocks, until the clean-limbed Scotland Yard man saves the day; (c) if you like really difficult mysteries that you can actually solve, rather than just guess at the answer, and (d) if you want to be the envy of your bibliophilic friends for not only having heard of this little-known author but actually reading his work.  It will help you to have the ability to suspend your disbelief even more than average.  Other than that, I cannot recommend that you spend your money here; it’s rather like ancient Scotch or Nova Scotia Malapeques, an acquired taste.

Notes For the Collector: There are only nine Penny novels and, before the reissue of most of them by Ramble House recently, reading more than half of them would have been the effort of a lifetime due both to scarcity and sheer expense. Years ago, a couple of times I paid outrageous prices to purchase a Penny novel only to sell it in as soon as I’d read it a couple of times; I literally couldn’t afford to keep it.  Ramble House, a very interesting publisher, has brought out trade paper editions of most of Penny.  I purchased my copy of Sweet Poison directly from Ramble House a few years ago and recall that after exchange, Customs tariffs and delivery charges, it worked out to be about $30 (Canadian).

I note that there are two copies available on abebooks.com, starting at about the same price, and an original Australian paperback using the White Circle marks at, wait for it, $250US.  And as for the first edition hardcover?  Fuhgeddaboutit. I can’t even tell you what one would bring these days, but the last time I saw a good Penny first for sale, it was in the $750 range.  Essentially the old paperbacks are worth what many first editions are worth, and the first editions are worth — your firstborn or thereabouts.  Now that most of these are available in Lulu-based editions, they really are the price of a current best-seller first edition at a bookstore, which is a significant achievement in making this author available to a wider audience.  Those of us who are fans of good old puzzle mysteries have good reason to thank Ramble House for this and a whole lot more.

My experience is that any copy of a Rupert Penny novel is worth pretty much what you have to pay for it (that is, if the pages aren’t actively falling out, etc.).  If you are a bookseller, believe me, it may take a few years but someone will always come along and give you twice what you paid for it.  And if you merely like to read good old mysteries, you will have the pleasure of knowing that for once in your life you will be able to sell the book when you’re finished for at  least what you paid for it and probably more, if you are in touch with a knowledgeable bookseller or know your way around the internet.