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.

Miracles For Sale (1939)

Miracles For Sale 

14806Author: Screenplay by Harry Ruskin & Marion Parsonnet and James Edward Grant, based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat written by Clayton Rawson.

Harry Ruskin was a prolific writer of, among other things, a double handful of Dr. Kildare films and “additional dialogue” for The Glass Key. (Mr.) Marion Parsonnet wrote the screenplay for GildaCover Girl, B-movies and some television episodes. James Edward Grant seems to have been a kind of two-fisted specialist with a long career primarily focused on Westerns and war movies.

And of course, based on the Great Merlini novel by Clayton Rawson noted above.

Other Data:  71 minutes long. Released August 14, 1939, according to IMDB.  Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and wardrobe by Dolly Tree. I don’t ordinarily mention the wardrobe mistress by name, but I have to say, her work here is extraordinary. There is no Wikipedia page for Dolly Tree, and someone should rectify this, based on what little I could find on the Internet.  Anyway, Florence Rice gets to wear two absolutely amazing evening gowns that a fashionable woman of seventy-five years later would have no problems wearing to the right event. They both have a very unusual shoulder treatment that is really attractive, a kind of Judy Jetson effect of multiple tiers. I’ll show you a picture below; these have to be seen to be believed.

miraclesforsale1939_ff_188x141_071020130425Directed by Tod Browning — indeed, his last film before retirement. This is not much more than a B picture in intent, I think, but he gave it a professional polish and treatment. I’m not an expert on Browning’s work, but it occurs to me that the unusual occupations of the characters are what attracted him to this piece.

Cast: Robert Young as Mike Morgan (because The Great Merlini needed his name simplified, apparently). Florence Rice as Judy Barclay, Frank Craven as Dad Morgan. Among the suspects are Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Frederick Worlock, Gloria Holden and William Demarest (of My Three Sons fame).

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I want to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing most of the ending of the film, and the twists that underlie some events.  You should also be aware that there is a novel called Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson to which you will find out the ending, plot, etc. If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own.   

Thank you, TCM, for providing the original trailer.

There are not many films that are strict-form whodunits that are actually solvable by the viewer. I admit whenever I encounter one these days, it usually takes me a couple of tries to work out if, and then exactly how, the director has made a clear logical path available for me. First I have to understand what’s being asserted as the solution, and then I have to look to see if indeed it’s possible to figure that out from what is on the screen. I have to look at the film a couple of times with my little notebook at hand, marking time points with plot points.

I didn’t do that here. My rate of posting is down to around once a month as it is.  If I give Miracles For Sale the strict analysis, I would be at my desk well into 2014, I’m sure. This is an extremely difficult and complex film; perhaps the most difficult and complex plot ever smushed into 71 minutes of rapid-fire film, complete with the occasional comedy aside. Add to which, it is based on a novel (Death From A Top Hat, hence DFATH) that is among the most difficult and complex ever written in the mystery field — so much so that they had to leave out bits of it because it would have doubled the running time of the film to explain things completely.  I’m quite familiar with this book, having loved it for years, and it’s a fascinating strict-form puzzle mystery based on the principles of stage magic, against a background of people whose professions include ventriloquist, stage magician, escape artist, medium, and a pair of nightclub performers with a telepathy act.  There’s also a professional debunker of phony mediums and a main character whose job it is to create the objects and routines with which stage magicians make their living.

At this point, the book and film diverge. The ventriloquist disappears from the film, to my sorrow, and to my much greater sorrow, the book’s grandstanding and verbose character of The Great Merlini, owner of a magic supply store and amateur detective, has been replaced by Mike Morgan, portrayed by the debonair but considerably more pedestrian Robert Young.

Browning_1939_MiraclesForSale_1As I said, a complex and difficult plot; I’ll give you the bare bones. A group of assorted professions as noted above are involved in the circumstances of the murder of the first victim, X, who is found dead in his locked apartment, spread-eagled inside a pentagram on the floor filled with black magic symbols and objects. Suspicion immediately falls on another character, Y, who leaves the murder scene because he has to appear on a live radio show.  Y promptly vanishes and later appears to have been lying dead elsewhere, spread-eagled inside a pentagram, the whole time. A number of other characters go through a lot of plot machinations in a remarkably short period of time, speaking crisply, and someone keeps trying to kill Florence Rice’s character, including one character whom we see clearly and whose corpse (to the left in the pentacle) is pretty cold at this point.  That’s her in the wide-shouldered gown above; she’s about to be shot at during a magic act in the finale, just before the real murderer is unmasked.  There’s a seance, a stage act, a car chase, and a bunch of magic tricks that go off at the right time. In the meantime we have seen an actual locked-room mystery brought off before our very eyes — in a solvable way.

But, dear reader, you will not solve this mystery. I believe it is possible to do so, given the information on the screen and in the soundtrack, but I will tell you in real life that you’ll never get it first time through. You have a dim chance, if you’ve read the book but forgotten most of the details; if you come to this cold, you’ll just never do it. Frankly, this is one for sitting back and allowing it to happen and enjoying it, and then, if you’re interested, watch the film again and see if you can figure out where and how you were fooled.  I will say, just a tiny bit enigmatically, that I was not aware of anyone leaving the apartment after the penny had been electrified, although I understand that someone had to have done so. I accept that the murderer can physically have accomplished what he did, and he had just enough time to do so, but honestly, folks, he would have been out of breath upon arrival everywhere and phenomenally lucky to boot.

If you’d actually like to try, I suggest that you stop the recording at the point when Florence Rice is going to be the target of the bullet — at the 1:09 mark — and start again from the beginning until you know what is about to happen and why, and instigated by whom. There is no Ellery Queenian “Challenge to the Reader” in this film or its source material, but if you wish a point at which to try yourself, that would be it.

Points of Interest:

5845664999_350ae6cd42_mI’ve always liked this movie, and in the years before videotape it was very difficult indeed to see; at least one very muddy print was making the rounds of small television markets, and I picked up VHS copies two or three times hoping vainly for a better copy.  Part of my affection for the book version comes from its origin in my life; I’ve been a collector of and dealer in mapbacks for many years, and it used to be that the source material, DFATH, was only available in a low-numbered and valuable paperback edition, complete with the “map of crime scene on back cover” that contributes to these early Dell editions being so charming and collectible. So whenever I managed to find a copy, not only did I have a very pleasant re-reading experience immediately at hand, but I also had an immediate customer for the book.

My affection for the movie, I think, stems from the fact that it’s an extremely difficult strict-form puzzle mystery — perhaps THE most difficult strict-form puzzle mystery on film — translated from book to film with very little loss. There is charm, humour, the events move at the same breakneck clip as in the original, and for those of us who enjoy ratiocination, there’s plenty of room for deduction. I would show my best copy of this to personal friends, inviting them to bemoan with me the general dullness of Hollywood mysteries that almost never rose to this level of complexity and difficulty.

I have to say, I have changed my tune somewhat. There are only a few such films that are strict-form and worth watching that date back to the 1930s, and definitely not very many overall — Clue, a comedy from 1985, is perhaps the latest, and The Last of Sheila from 1973 is perhaps the last serious one not based on an Agatha Christie piece. The ones that managed to get made — this has never been a popular genre — were marked by extreme originality and usually based in some profession or background that would have been interesting in any context. Unfortunately, for the handful that are worth watching, there are ten times as many unwatchable, dull and chaotic failures.

x-miracles-for-sale-jWhy is that?

Oddly enough, I figured this out by watching every single episode of the 80s TV series Murder, She Wrote at least twice, and this is an exercise I don’t recommend to you. MSW tries to be a strict form puzzle mystery, for the most part, and part of the reason that it is dull and considered suitable for the elderly is that a strict form puzzle mystery is very difficult to SHOW.  It is much easier to write. The other reason the series is dull is that in 264 episodes and four made-for-TV movies, Jessica Fletcher is on the scene when a body is discovered.  This is beyond ridiculous, and thus the production is constantly winking at the audience that this is merely a set piece, a kind of game played out for your amusement, and to me this sucks a lot of vitality out of the plots.

I don’t remember the episode name, but I dimly recall one of the clues was that Jessica Fletcher walked into a room and put her hand on a TV set and grimaced a little.  This was meant to indicate that the TV set was still warm, and thus the room had been occupied when someone said it wasn’t, and therefore the murderer was some washed-up 80s TV sidekick. The point is, though, that it was necessary to show Jessica putting her hand on the TV set and reacting, and the viewer had to figure out why she had grimaced and draw all the same conclusions. Something peculiar happens in the very tightly scripted episode of a network programme when this happens; the canny viewer immediately becomes aware that an important clue has just been shown, because every single other word and gesture and movement and camera angle and interaction has a purpose and a function.  When we are shown something that is seemingly extraneous, well, we’re all wise and experienced TV viewers, and we know there is some reason for being shown this, if we can only figure it out.  Since the strict-form mystery must show you the clues, they are much more difficult to conceal or obfuscate than they are with the printed word. Here, you’ve got 71 minutes of vital plot points being rained upon you like confetti; miss one and you can’t solve the mystery.  In the book you have to construct in your head a map of the whereabouts of every character, and follow them all the way through the plot to realize that there is only one person who can have done everything that happened.  In this movie, you have to sort information like the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger, and there’s no time to think about anything except what just exploded.  That’s why MSW is considered dumbed down for a dumb audience — the producers knew their audience could only handle one or two difficult clues every fifteen minutes or so. Here, it’s vital information every fifteen seconds. All of it necessary to a truly complicated plot, and upon fifth or sixth viewing of this gem, you’ll appreciate the shovel-loads of data that the writers threw at you so skilfully. First time through, fugeddaboudit.

While I do think there are a double-handful of strict-form puzzle mystery films that are enjoyable — I’ll make a list for you someday — I think I have come to understand over the years why there are not more of them. You run a double risk of failure.  You have failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that they could NEVER have solved the damn mystery and it will be a cold day in hell before they ever go to another Mike Morgan movie.  Unfortunately you have also failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that of course it was perfectly obvious whodunnit and really, they must think we’re just idiots to make it that easy, I’ll skip the next one and send my 11-year-old to see it.

As I’ve said or suggested above, I’m a reasonably intelligent person with a very wide knowledge of murder mysteries, who is accustomed to the challenge of trying to figure them out and succeeds a great deal of the time — and I failed to figure this one out on the first go-round. I venture to say that this means that approximately 100% of people who see the movie are surprised by the ending, and in this case it cannot be a very pleasant surprise. The actual murderer has disguised himself as a number of other people, but he is only on screen in his own persona for 60 or 90 seconds of the film at most. This is not enough time for anyone to grasp the individual and understand exactly who he is and what he does for a living, especially since the movie proceeds at breakneck speed and all the men are wearing nearly identical clothing at all times.  I have this little vision of a stream of people leaving the theatre after the premiere, saying, “Well, you know, not as much FUN as those Thin Man movies, don’t you think?”  I love this film, I love the level of expectation that it has of my puzzle-solving efforts, but I have to say, all in all, it’s a failure.  It’s just too damn tough.

And that’s why I’m not expecting a lot of enormously popular strict-form puzzle mystery films to be greenlit in the near future. It’s a chancy and difficult exercise that is fraught with peril and, very often, the modern screenplay doesn’t exhibit that level of wild imaginative originality that is so necessary to lift a mystery plot from the level of MSW to Miracles for Sale.  You have to have a mystery that is based on a visual premise. You need interesting detective characters, a strange background, a weird murder idea. And there’s no guarantee that anyone will like it even if you get it right.

There’s one further point of interest, albeit a minor one.  I learned from the TCM introduction to this film that it represents the first time that contact lenses were seen to be used in a film. That is a minor plot point, but it will explain why one or two characters seem to have weird colourless eyes; you’ll understand this in the last minutes of the film.

Notes For the Collector:

1289890045Copies of the film seem readily available.  It was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies in October, 2013 and they aren’t usually shy about repeating their offerings every once in a while. TCM and Amazon both have the same double-feature DVD available for under $20.

Copies of the book, especially the Dell edition pictured above, are certainly worth having. To me, Clayton Rawson is one of the cornerstones of the puzzle mystery and Dell mapbacks are a cornerstone of paperback collecting.  All four of the Merlini books in mapback edition might set you back $100 and they will only increase in value with time; the most expensive copy you can find is probably the biggest bargain. The hardcover first without jacket starts at about $45, but the jacket is extremely scarce in any condition and the cheapest one I saw was $310; the VG+ copy in VG+ jacket will set you back $3,750 (pictured at left). I’ve never held in my hands one for sale with its original jacket, but I note that there is a really good facsimile jacket out there. So a good rule of thumb is that if the jacket is in good condition, it’s either a facsimile or you probably can’t afford it.

The Reader Is Warned (1939)

The Reader Is Warned

the-reader-is-warnedAuthor: Carter Dickson, the best-known pseudonym of the late great John Dickson Carr, a Grand Master of the mystery genre.

Publication Data:  1939, William Morrow, first US is possibly the true first, although it may be the Heinemann edition (UK), of similar date, upon which I am unable to obtain reliable information.  First paper is the beautiful Pocket #303 from 1945, which is worth looking at; unfortunately I have a policy of showing the book which I actually read, and the Berkley Medallion (F972) edition, 1964, was the one at the top of a random box of books.  Mine is in a lot worse shape than the picture here and might be worth the $2 I seem to have paid for it.  As is occasionally and regrettably the case, this cover gives a small clue to the identity of the murderer which is not justified by its contents, and that’s all I’ll say here.

About this book:

The subtitle is “A Sir Henry Merrivale Mystery”, which just about says it all for a certain category of John Dickson Carr (JDC) fans.  JDC, of course, wrote at a furious rate for many years as both Dickson and Carr, with multiple books yearly for many years. Both his series protagonists were nearly the same character; Carr’s Gideon Fell a heavy-set British upper-class amateur, and Dickson’s Sir Henry Merrivale a heavy-set British aristocratic dilettante. Both are irascible, brilliant and magnificently logical. The main difference is that Fell’s books are rarely even remotely funny, whereas Merrivale’s (although the earliest works are serious and eerie indeed) began to contain more humour and continued to outright farce in the later works.

This is the 9th Merrivale novel (in five years!) and the broad streak of JDC’s low humour that once a novel involves Sir Henry in some sort of slapstick calamity has not yet begun to manifest itself. Nevertheless he has already started to harumph and bumble and sputter, although it is still at a mercifully small level.  He calls women “my dolly” and men “my fathead” and is, all in all, a very Chestertonian figure — although he gets very stern and implacable near the end of each book as he’s pinning the crime inexorably to the criminal.

JDC’s style was such that H.M., for so is he referred to, is offstage for the first third of the book while the stage is set and the characters are sketched in. His arrival is usually immediately after the murder; he takes charge, terrorizes the local police and Scotland Yard and finally solves the crime. There is usually a great deal of frenetic activity and some of the subplots of the books are quite eerie, in a Gothic nightmare kind of way. H.M. (and his cognate Dr. Fell) always brush away the cobwebs of the supernatural which JDC so effectively raises and show that there is a logical, sensible, scientific solution to the impossible problem which has developed in the course of the novel.

Since JDC’s strict-form detective works are  always based around a central “trick”, a set-piece of mystification by which the murder is accomplished, the aficionado finds himself describing the individual books in a specific way.  “This is the one about …”  The characters are unmemorable and interchangeable, the locations vague and unspecific, and the motives usually banal or incomprehensible, but the set-piece reigns supreme, and only by mentioning it will you be able to trigger a recognition of whether your listener has read the novel or not.

Thus, “this is the one about” — Teleforce, and the guy who seems to be killed at the top of the stairs with no one near him, with witnesses observing from a number of angles.  Teleforce is the major subplot, about a man named Pennik who seems to be able to kill people at a distance using some sort of mental power. The combination results in the host of a country-house weekend party, a wealthy man with an intelligent wife who writes murder mysteries, being threatened by Pennik and then dying for no apparent reason in full view of witnesses.  There is a great deal of hugger-mugger about Teleforce and whether or not Pennik can be prosecuted for killing his host.  JDC in this novel puts in a good deal of excellent work building the picture of the British national press going doolally about Teleforce, with the passion with which they today might greet a two-headed Royal heir, or Jade Goody.  H.M., of course, sees through all the foofaraw and brings the crime home to the extremely surprising murderer, in a dramatic denouement.

There is an elegant little conceit in this novel that explains its title. At various points in the novel, JDC inserts a footnote guiding the reader away from certain types of solutions to the mystery.  For instance, at page 56 of the Berkley edition, we find:

“In looking over these notes of what I said, I think it only fair to add that [the victim] was not killed by any mechanical device which operated in the absence of the guilty person. The presence of the guilty person was necessary to make the method succeed. The reader is warned.”

And this is signed with the initials of the narrator, whom we are sure is reliable. Similarly, “… the murder in this case worked entirely alone, and had no confederate who either knew the murderer’s plan or rendered material assistance in any way. The reader is warned.” from page 102. JDC was well-known and loved for occasionally breaking the fourth wall in his books — The Hollow Man contains a disquisition upon locked room mysteries, by a character who adds, “We’re in a detective story, and it’s no good pretending we’re not”. But this is perhaps his most determined effort of this sort, although he does it again later in 1952’s The Nine Wrong Answers. JDC literally tells you that he has led you down a bit of a garden path and not to be fooled.  (However, at least one of the asides quoted here is phrased in such a way as to be significantly misleading, although linguistically correct.)

This is not first-class Dickson; that honour belongs to the earliest books from 1934 and 1935. It is, however, a good example of second-class Dickson. There is a nearly impossible puzzle, interesting characterization, significant misdirection (although here not with the overtones of supernatural occurrences, a hallmark of JDC) and, as happens a handful of times in the novels, a sexual frankness which is extremely unusual for detective fiction of the period. The murderer not only engages in sexual activity which was extremely inappropriate for the times, but appears to take physical pleasure from the physical pain of others. (In the ending, the murderer contemplates with pleasure the prospect of torturing a minor character with lit matches before killing her.) And it avoids the twin errors of the later Dickson books, poorly-written farce that breaks the action and characterization which is at the level of gossamer and cardboard.

And I think the best thing about this book is that, essentially, yes, you will be fooled. JDC will lead you down the garden path like he has led so many others, actually dangling the true solution before your eyes in a single sentence before misleading you by dismissing it for what appears at the time to be a good reason. I must say that, for me, most of the pleasure of these novels lies in JDC’s ability to bamboozle me, and he does so here effectively and amusingly. The delight lies in having to slap one’s forehead at the end and say, admiringly, “And the murderer was so-and-so all the time, I never would have guessed.”

As an aside — I have recently made the acquaintance of an extremely intelligent reader who has well-developed literary tastes which hitherto do not seem to have included much of detective fiction, although she does read with pleasure Henning Mankell and a few others. I intend to try this on her and note her reactions, if she cares to share them with me. I will be interested in her point of view about whether the puzzle mystery at this recherche level of the “impossible crime” subgenre is capable of interesting a reader from a more “art fiction” background than JDC’s fans will usually share.

Notes For the Collector:

reader warned offers a VG US 1st (William Morrow) for $400, which seems excessive except that one of the few other such copies for sale notes that this is a “very scarce first edition”. This apparently means that a Fair ex-library copy will cost you $100. Yikes. Perhaps a better investment is the first paper, Pocket #303. What sounds like a beaten-up copy will set you back $45.95, but the cover is an exquisite abstract design in shades of blue and grey, and I suggest that this is the most collectible edition. That means that paying a premium for a copy in great condition will never let you down — $60 for a crisp copy of this would be very fair and I am pretty sure it will hold its value.

There are a number of other paper editions of this title from smaller presses, which I always felt to be scarce; certainly the average mystery bookstore will always have a waiting list for a couple of reading copies. First UK paper is Penguin #812, a typical greenback, and they certainly hold their value well. The IPL (International Polygonics) edition from 1989 seems to me to be priced on Abebooks far beyond its actual worth and somebody in Grand Rapids, MI wants $107.15 for a Like New copy. As I recall, it sold for about $10 and the typical IPL edition was poorly constructed. Its cover is certainly as significantly undistinguished as that of the average IPL paperback, which tend to the mawkish and badly-drawn efforts of a company that cannot afford better. If there are IPL collectors, I’ve never met one and I can’t think of what’s attracting them. So save your $107.15 and get a really good copy of Pocket #303 as an investment.

two_complete_detective_books_194307One interesting-sounding edition that I haven’t personally examined is in the July, 1943 edition of Two Complete Detective Books pulp magazine (#21). But ho boy, the cover looks great!


A few days later, it occurred to me that I had been unfair to IPL in the paragraphs above. I can remember being sincerely grateful for bringing books back into print which I badly wanted to be in print, copies of which were scarce or impossible or ludicrously expensive before IPL came into being. Clayton Rawson’s Death in a Top Hat, for instance, was only available in a low-numbered and horribly expensive Dell mapback edition. Et cetera. So, yes, their covers were awful and their production values were shoddy. But thank you, IPL, for doing the sincere service of introducing a generation to writers like Clayton Rawson and Carter Dickson whose lesser-known works might otherwise have passed beyond resuscitation. Your list was superbly well chosen, highly knowledgeably managed, and I am sorry you are no longer with us.



Sweet Poison, by Rupert Penny


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, 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.

Diagnosis: Impossible — The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, by Edward D. Hoch

ImageTitle: Diagnosis: Impossible — The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne

Author: Hoch, Edward D.

Publication data: 1996. A collection of short stories written between 1974 and 1996, collected by Crippen & Landru, ISBN 0739418963 in hardcover, 1885941022 in paperback.

Edward Hoch is famous as a writer of short stories, and he was a very, very prolific author.  Amazon says he’s known for several novels and over 950 short stories. Apparently Crippen & Landru collected a bunch of themed ones in various series, which was good of them; it’s hard to find outlets for short stories these days.  As I understand it, Hoch had a short story in every single edition of EQMM for decades.

Dr. Sam Hawthorne is a series character in 1920s New England who solves impossible crimes and locked-room mysteries, etc.  Now, I am well-known for having been fanatical about such stories in my youth: John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson, etc.  I’ll suggest that this gimmick — for gimmick it is — works best at the novel length because it allows the remainder of the story to swirl around this central premise.  All the above-named writers had the knack of posing the impossible problem and then distracting the reader from its premise by dint of furious and often bizarre action.

In the short story format — well, even with my well-known enthusiasm, I cannot muster up much for the stories in this collection.  This may well be a function of age and familiarity having bred contempt, because I find myself increasingly unable to return to Queen, Carr et al. as once I could easily do. But really, I felt during this volume like I was watching an earnest eight-year-old do card tricks.  Literally, it’s all about the trick.  Everything in the story is subsumed by the need to progress towards the solution, and you know that things like plotting and characterization are secondary.  Indeed, if there is characterization, you know it’s in there because it contributes towards the solution.  If a character is described as stingy or old-fashioned, it’s because if he were not stingy or old-fashioned, the central trick probably wouldn’t have worked.  (Without giving anything away from this volume, think of Dorothy L. Sayers in Busman’s Honeymoon, who needed the victim to stand in a certain position at a specific time every night overlooking a radio console overshadowed by a hanging cactus plant, and thus made him obsessive about hearing the evening news.)

The most interesting story, to me, was the first in the series, “The Problem of the Covered Bridge”.  The central trick seemed to grow organically out of the story and be based on realistic characters.  The rest are merely trick stories, by and large.  It’s as if Hoch thought to himself, “Hmm, how can I kill someone in a voting booth?”  and went from there, rather than starting with characters and coming up with the voting booth as a result of their interactions.  I’m not saying that one creative path is more correct than another, but in this case the path is really painfully obvious, and that makes the stories the literary equivalent of Sudoku.  Which I dislike.

There is usually only one character in each story who’s fit to be the murderer.  Most of the time, it’s someone unpleasant, and the rest of the time it’s someone nice who got into a bad position through no fault of their own.  And quite often the trick would not work without the active participation of the victim. So once the trick is described, you simply have to create a logical chain of events between victim and murderer. I don’t regard myself as especially brilliant for having worked out most of these before the end of the story; honestly, all I had to do was stop for a minute, make a cup of coffee, and think about it a little bit.  I suspect that most readers do not approach these stories in this way but instead prefer to race to the solution and assure themselves that, yes, they could have figured that out if they had bothered to give it a shot.

I enjoyed “The Problem of the Old Gristmill” more than the others, mostly because the central trick was inventive and unexpected. With quite a few of these solutions it was impossible that there could be more than one path to the answer because of the boundary conditions — the victim is seen going into the voting booth and is under observation the whole time — but this particular story had an interesting ambiguity about it.

I would certainly recommend this collection to aficionados of impossible crime stories and locked-room mysteries, although it may well be already known to them.

Notes for the Collector: I have to say that I tend to think of volumes like this, from Crippen & Landru, as collectibles, which means that there is usually a premium to get a copy.  And I note that the lowest price for this on Amazon, used in hardcover, is $10.25 which is quite a bit more than I paid for my volume.  Is it worth the $20 it’s likely to cost you to get it to your home?  Not as much as similar volumes, I suggest, unless you are a devotee of the “Five-Minute Mystery” school of literature or a fan of short stories over novels.  I am neither.  This may be a function of age or taste; your mileage may vary.