She Had To Have Gas, by Rupert Penny (1939)

SheHadToHaveGas315As I mentioned in my last post, after struggling hard with Gladys Mitchell, I felt I needed something a bit more … structured to read. A few weeks ago a copy of this Rupert Penny novel was on top of a box of books I was moving… and I spent an hour flipping through it refreshing my memory as to its contents.  So I thought I’d share it with you.

More than five years ago I first looked at a Rupert Penny novel here and another one here last year; I’ll just hit the high spots. Rupert Penny used to be one of the most difficult tastes in mystery reading to satisfy. His books were nearly impossible to get and commanded astronomical prices (in the range of US$500 for ANY hardcover). He was only published in flimsy wartime editions, many of which did not last, and his occasional paperback publications similarly came on the market in small editions and then vanished.

As of today, ABE Books has none of the first editions available, and the very rare paperback copies from the 1940s are US$75 to $100. I had a scarce Collins White Circle paperback edition of Sealed Room Murder that I recall brought me $75 some years ago. But then the excellent Ramble House brought all nine of his books back as print-on-demand trade-format paperbacks and the GAD world could finally read its way through Penny’s oeuvre. To the best of my knowledge, She Had To Have Gas was published once in 1939 by Collins Crime Club, and that was it until Ramble House reprinted it. My copy has a curious error; the back cover is a blurb for a different Rupert Penny novel, Cut And Run. But in the way of POD, possibly mine is one of a very few such misprints.

For those of you who have never encountered Rupert Penny’s work — well, his focus is definitely on the “impossible crime” story in the manner of the Humdrum school. In Penny, the puzzle is all, and characterization is not much in evidence. The novels are structured around really difficult puzzles that theoretically are “fair play” , in that Penny asserts that the reader is given all necessary information to make a solution possible.  To that end, I believe all his novels contain the Queenian conceit of the “Challenge to the Reader”; the novel comes to a halt while the author breaks the fourth wall and poses some questions that the reader should be able to answer (but, frankly, is unlikely to be able to).

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

It is October, 1938 in the small town of Craybourne and we are introduced to Mrs. Agatha Topley, a somewhat meek widow and first-time landlady who is having a problem with her only lodger, a slatternly Londoner named Alice Carter. Miss Carter is behind on her rent and Mrs. Topley needs the money. Alice has introduced her frequent male visitor as her cousin, Mr. Ellis, and Mrs. Topley has written him a note to urge him to mention the matter to Miss Carter. Since she hates to cause a fuss, she hopes this will be sufficient.

When Mrs. Topley returns from a shopping excursion, she immediately loses her temper. Her lodger has apparently taken charge of Mrs. Topley’s cherished radio and moved it into her room, since it’s playing at full blast. Miss Carter’s door is locked and she’s not answering. When Mrs. Topley smells gas, her anger turns to panic. She pushes a chair in front of the door and peeps through the transom window, only to see Miss Carter’s body shrouded in the bedclothes, with a rubber tube disappearing beneath them.

Mrs. Topley immediately runs to get the local policeman and a few minutes later they return to find — the bed is empty and all Miss Carter’s possessions have vanished.

Meanwhile, mystery writer Charles Harrington is puzzled about the seeming disappearance of his niece Philippa and discusses the problem with his friend, the Chief Constable. Philippa has requested a huge sum of money (£5000, which in 2017 terms would equal the purchasing power of roughly US$320,000) and refuses to say why. The Chief Constable enlists the assistance of policemen Tukes and Best (whose girlfriend is Philippa’s maid) and both cases are investigated. Apparently Philippa got romantically entangled with a sleazy actor who has been blackmailing her …

The police quickly follow some clues and make a grisly discovery at the actor’s studio — the body of a young woman missing her head, hands and feet. The body is clad only in undergarments and the wrists and neck are concealed by tennis racquet covers. It’s not clear whether the corpse is that of Philippa or Alice Carter but everyone fears the worst for both girls.

At this point Penny’s series detective Inspector Beale, accompanied by journalist Tony Purdon, becomes involved. Assisted by Tukes and Best, they investigate. You should experience the details of the investigation for yourself, but as noted above, the action stops at page 200 and the author poses three questions. If you can answer them, you’ve solved the case. If not — Inspector Beale explains everything in the final chapter and unmasks the criminal, whose identity should prove to be very surprising to the average reader.

14675Why is this book worth your time?

If you’re an aficionado of the classic puzzle mystery, Rupert Penny is for you; particularly if you prefer your difficult logic problems unencumbered by excessive realism in the characterization department. The plot is not especially original, but Penny learned from the best. This particular volume has elements that reminded me of Freeman Wills Crofts (the minute-by-minute timetable involved in Alice Carter’s disappearance), Ellery Queen (I’ll merely mention the decapitations in The Egyptian Cross Mystery), John Dickson Carr (a certain sexual liberation of one of the female characters that may remind you of The Judas Window) and even, dare I say it, Agatha Christie (an aspect of the solution that I expect will surprise most readers, but I cannot identify which of her titles because I’d give the whole thing away).

Although I’ve suggested that Penny in general prefers to avoid in-depth characterization, this volume has some nice touches. The landlady Mrs. Topley, although offstage for most of the book, is a crucial witness to the events of the first chapter and if you hope to solve this mystery, you’ll have to understand both what she did and why she did it. And for once this is not unfair; her actions and reactions arise organically out of the text and she’s presented in sufficient detail that you won’t feel cheated when you learn what you overlooked.  You may even feel sorry for the widow who can’t bring herself to ask her lodger for the back rent due to an excess of gentility. Inspector Beale and his friend Tony are rather “jolly chums”, chaffing and teasing each other in the manner of public-school boys; you might find them a bit too carefree about the facts of brutal murders, but honestly I found this more believable than if they wrapped themselves in a shroud of gloom.

And there are some amusing asides from the character who is a mystery writer. I always enjoy seeing mystery writers put mystery writers into their books as characters, and here Charles Harrington has a bit to tell us about the business:

“Charles Harrington … had contrived twenty-three such works, and the plot for the twenty-fourth was in course of construction. His sales averaged thirty thousand copies per book, including the United States and editions down to half a crown, and as well there were at least five magazines of repute which would take a short story whenever he cared to offer one, and send him by return a cheque for round about forty guineas. … He had a good car, and servants, and every year he invariably passed one month in Scotland and one on the Continent; and all these things cost money.”

Harrington also supports his niece Philippa to the tune of £20 a month at a time when a young woman could survive on £50 a year if she got bought a lot of dinners by young men. He also has what seem to be genuine feelings about his missing niece. I have a feeling that Penny himself was not finding detective fiction so lucrative as his invented character, since he published no short stories and no cheap editions to my knowledge; perhaps this is the same instinct that made Dorothy L. Sayers live vicariously by allowing Lord Peter Wimsey to buy first editions and fancy motorcars with a lavish hand. It’s also mentioned that the sleazy actor twice tried his hand at detective fiction, which invariably piques the interest of the alert reader, but no further details of his efforts are given.

The puzzle at the core of this volume is a very difficult one. One essential element — and I’ll try and describe this without spoiling your potential enjoyment — requires the reader to connect two different viewings of the same physical object and identify a crucial difference. Again hoping not to spoil a different book, this certainly reminded me of John Dickson Carr’s The White Priory Murder because you need to form a picture in your mind of what you’re seeing and not just accept the description. You’ll probably find yourself at the denouement flipping back to an earlier page and thinking, “Oh, yes, he DID say that about that object, didn’t he? Damn, I missed that.” There’s another crucial aspect that requires one of the detectives to jump to a conclusion and for the murderer to gratefully agree and bolster the erroneous conclusion with some hasty lying, which is tough to spot. I didn’t solve this one, although frankly I rarely do, and if the pleasure of a difficult puzzle like this is of primary importance to you, you’ll enjoy reading this book slowly and carefully.

There are a number of interesting sidelights on social issues that are small but, to me at least, satisfying. Mrs. Topley, for instance, considers the various ways in which “three and six” could make a difference to her everyday life, including funding her contributions to the Christmas Club and getting in a quarter ton of coal before the price goes up. There are details of the grubby undergarments worn by the dismembered corpse that will interest my friend Moira of the excellent blog Clothes in Books (but very little else that will pique her interest, frankly), and quite a bit of background on the ways and means of gas in terms of household heating as well as suicide/murder. (How many minutes does it take to smell gas? You’ll find out.) There’s also an interesting moment or two about the state of the scientific art with respect to blood analysis in 1939.

But make no mistake, this is not a classic for the ages. By virtue of the difficulty of the underlying puzzle, it’s definitely a cut above a time-passer, but there’s a pervasive air of cardboard throughout that allows the characterization to be sufficient to conceal the murderer, if you follow me. The characters do what they’re said to do because the author says so, and not because Penny has troubled to construct them so that they will logically do those things.  Let me merely say that this is a first-rate second-rate mystery.

However, if you’re looking for a really difficult puzzle and don’t require much realism in its presentation — this is definitely a book for you.  Enjoy!

 

 

Death Through the Mill, by Laura Colburn (1979)

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of mysteries go through my hands. My fondness for collectible paperbacks has taught me that if it’s unusual and weird, or even inexplicable, then it goes into my collection. The ugly, the silly, the ridiculous, and the meretricious — all these things have found a home in Noah’s Archives.

I’ll have to confess here, though, that occasionally I guess wrong about the future demand for certain books. Today’s book is an example of just how wrong I have occasionally been.

WARNING: This essay 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. 

9780890835258-us-300What is this book about?

The interest in this book lies not so much in what it is “about” but how it was packaged and produced. But to keep to my format, I’ll give you a plot summary first and discuss the production later.

Carol Gates is a freelance artist who has been selected to illustrate a volume of true-crime stories written by well-known writer Henry Marston, who lives in Millerton, a charming small town in Vermont. Henry is engaged in renovating a quaint old mill with a long history into a living and working space, as well as writing his new book. After she’s spent a few days getting to know the author, and the inhabitants and history of Millerton, she discovers Henry’s body — after it’s been mangled by a trip through the mill wheel.

Carol has solved a mystery before (Death in a Small World, #23 in this series) and thus finds it perfectly natural to investigate what she believes to be a murder, even though she knows no one in town — her father is the sheriff of a nearby town and an old friend of Millerton’s sheriff, and this gives her just enough purchase to manage an investigation. Is the motive concerned with the bad blood surrounding a collapsed real-estate deal to locate a ski hill near Millerton? Or perhaps one of the instances of historical feuding among members of the older families in Millerton? Is it concerned with a string of local burglaries? Or is it something that no one’s thought of except in passing, to do with antique furniture or the history of the mill itself?

After realizing the truth and arranging to confront the killer and prove her theory, Carol finds herself “trapped in total darkness with an enraged, desperate killer”. Luckily she thought to arrange backup and thus has the chance to explain all the mysterious goings-on after the killer is arrested.

Why is this book worth your time?

As a mystery, it’s not worth a minute of your time. The writing is … ghastly. It’s as though the author worked with a copy of some entry-level textbook on “how to write a mystery” and ticked off the points one by one as they were achieved, but taking great pleasure in seeing how many cliches it would be possible to work into the text. Here’s a horrible portent of things to come from page one, sentence two, where the author takes a moment to acquaint the reader with a physical description of the detective:

As she passed the coat closet, she stopped, opened the door, and scanned her reflection in the full-length mirror. She noted with approval the calm, unfurrowed brow, the wide gray eyes, the long aristocratic nose, the noncommital set of the lips. She ignored the paint-stained khaki shirt, several sizes too large, and the torn jeans rolled up almost to the knee. She nodded with almost royal condescension to the image in the mirror, then let her lips curve into a grin and shouted, ‘Whee!’

Is that not what everyone does in the morning, stand in front of the mirror and do a quick up-and-down with approval? Stopping to notice that our brows are unfurrowed and that our lips are set in a non-committal way — whatever that means — but skipping entirely over anything below the neck except to note that it’s thoroughly covered. Yes, every single bit of prose in this book is dumbed down to that horrible level of G-rated pap. And to quote a cheeseball text that purports to teach novice writers the mistakes they shouldn’t make, this is a “description dump” on page one. Just the first of many dumps to come, believe me.

The experienced reader will begin to take pleasure in just how horrible this novel is … when the protagonist arrives in Millerton, for instance, and meets her landlady, who greets her with a home-cooked meal and an indigestible chapter of backstory — sorry, local history. The landlady’s name is not Mrs. Exposition, but it should be.

Everything in this book makes an episode of Murder, She Wrote look daring and avant-garde. It’s a massive wad of half-understood writing cliches, presented in a prose style that is apparently aimed at ESL students, and culminating in a denouement that is so massively predictable, it’s very nearly boring. You’ll be flipping through the part where the murderer is threatening the detective in what the author no doubt thought of as the “gripping climax”, because it’s patently obvious that she’ll survive. Although, like me, you may be wishing otherwise.

Here’s something that brought a smile to my non-commital lips 😉 when I realized the full value of just how horrible this writing was. Carol’s been given the job of illustrating this true crime book, and drives up to Vermont to meet with the author — and they never spend a moment talking about the job for the first week she’s there. They even mention this oversight every once in a while in the first half of the book, in the manner of, “Gee, we really should talk about this, but I’m too busy right now laying a trail of red herrings with a subsidiary character — why don’t you come up to my place tomorrow and discover my body, so we’ll never have to think about this again?” It begs the question of why anyone would bother to illustrate a true crime book with Carol’s cute drawings anyway, but that is not the only mysterious gap in logic in this horrible book. They come at you so thick and fast, you’ll hardly notice one over another.

There is, in fact, a reason why I purchased this book, other than its general level of illiterate awfulness. As you’ll note from the cover above, it’s #34 in the series of Zebra Mystery Puzzlers. And I think the blurb on the cover will explain the idea better than I can:

Can you solve the crime by finding the clues in the story, on the cover, and in the illustrations — before you cut open the final sealed chapter? / The novel that lets YOU be the detective!

Yes, Gentle Reader, that’s the point of this. YOU are the detective, because you have the opportunity to examine a series of terrible drawings that are scattered through the text, to read the descriptive passages that explain what you are seeing, and solve the crime.

The shoe and crank.pngHere’s an example of what the terrible drawings look like — and please pardon my limited photographic capacity. If you weren’t told on the facing page that “The rusty crank rested on the desk, next to a plastic bag that contained the fatal shoe,” would you have known? The clue, such as it is, is the series of parallel scratches on the sole of the shoe. Oh, sorry, the fatal shoe. Why it’s the fatal shoe, I have no idea, other than the fact that the victim was wearing it. Since it’s clear that the artist has no idea what a mill-wheel crank looks like, neither shall we, so it’s conveniently slithered off to the side of the desk. That tells you that it’s not a clue. Immediately after this is revealed, “Carol stirred herself,” so in the burst of laughter that the experienced reader will emit at the thought of Carol as a self-mixing cup of coffee, you’ll forget all about the crank anyway.

And then, of course, the “final sealed chapter”. Indeed, the last signature (eight double-sided pages) has been bound into the book without being cut, so that — if you have suffered a traumatic brain injury or have an IQ hovering around room temperature in Fahrenheit and thereby failed to solve the mystery — you will not be in any danger of discovering the identity of the murderer without the deliberate act of cutting the pages. Here is what most of us know from the pages of Ellery Queen and Rupert Penny as the “Challenge to the Reader”:

It's your turn.pngAnd be sure to Write your Answers Here!, because otherwise how would the next reader have her enjoyment spoiled? The author does not, after the manner of C. Daly King, provide a “clue finder” to tell you exactly which clues were where. That’s because there’s so much denouement crammed into the final eight pages that they actually have to be printed in a type size about two points smaller than the rest of the text, so there isn’t room to explain anything like that.

8af78c9a-9b65-11e5-966a-5ac58b93acfbSo my faithful readers will now be well down the path of just why I have half a box of these damn Zebra Mystery Puzzlers in my basement, and as many as possible with an uncut final chapter. I’m too young to have been able to buy “dossier novels” when they first came out, but I know that these exercises in detection now command a fancy price in the marketplace. A 1936 original of Murder Off Miami is today selling for more than $100US, and even the 1979 reprint is commanding a hefty price. I can’t describe these better than has a bookseller on ABEBooks, so I’ll quote him:

The four crime dossiers devised by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links in the 1930s were a completely original novelty and, at least initially, immensely popular both in Britain and around the world. Although there had been ‘solve it yourself’ crime books in the past, such as the ‘Baffle Books’ created by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay, Wheatley and Links were to take the format one or more steps further. What makes the crime dossiers so unique was that they presented the reader with all the evidence that an investigating team of detectives might gather and then ask him to solve the crime. To this end, a variety of physical clues and reports were housed together in a cardboard folder, which if worked through methodically as any detective might, would yield the correct solution to the problem. Having used deduction to arrive at a prime suspect, the reader could then check his findings with the actual solution to the mystery that was concealed within a sealed section towards the rear of the folder.

Yes, you guessed it. I rather thought back in the day that Zebra Mystery Puzzlers were to the 1970s as crime dossiers were to the 1930s, and that today my forethought in laying down uncut copies of as many ZMPs as possible would pay off in the future. But alas, they have not. Zebra even commissioned a couple of these from a fairly well-known author, Ron Goulart (they’re the ones as by Josephine Kains, if you’re curious), and those two sell for a slightly higher price — perhaps $8 for an uncut copy. My own (cut) copy of Death Through the Mill cost me $4, and I think I probably paid three times what it’s worth today. I note today on eBay that you can get a package of eight uncut ZMPs, including one of the Goulart titles, for $20.

Well, I hope my foolish investment has given you a moment of amusement … Now you know that experienced paperback collectors have to lay down a lot of bottles of plonk in the cellars to come up with the occasional desirable vintage. I hope your own collecting instincts are better than mine!

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

Image

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.