Rupert Penny has been on my radar for a while courtesy of JJ at The Invisible Event. Penny seems to divide readers into camps who think he’s a long lost craftsman of the golden age, and those who feel his writing is the literary equivalent of hard tack. I tend to trust JJ on these points, and so Penny was at the top of my birthday wish list recently.
Despite JJ clearly laying out a “best of Penny” post, I somehow got mixed up and put Policeman’s Evidence at the top of my list. My mind inexplicably translated “fifth best” into “the best”, and so here I am. I guess on the positive side, there are even better books to look forward to.
Which is good, because Policeman’s Evidence is a solid mystery that hits many points that I’m looking for in a GAD novel: country house, locked room murder, cast of characters rich enough to dawdle away their time being waited upon. Plus, there’s “the MacGuffin”; in this case a lost trove of jewels squirreled away centuries earlier by a nobleman on his deathbed. The location of the gems is documented, assuming of course you can read a complex cipher whose key has been lost to the ages.
Fortunately we have Major Adair on hand, a skilled code breaker from the Great War. Adair has a cast of characters to help him search a sprawling country house, each a variation of the perfect suspect should a murder happen to occur once the treasure is found…
I’ll admit it, I eat this stuff up. Give me some lost treasures, a mystery that spans centuries, or any of those other pulp tropes, and you have my attention. Granted, it has to be handled competently, and Penny does just fine in that respect: a painstaking search of the house, a discovered ruby, and – better yet – a coded message pointing to an even larger treasure. Granted, it’s been done better (Hag’s Nook/The Red Widow Murders), with Penny giving the treasure hunt maybe half the screen time that it deserves.
The first portion of the story unfolds from the point of view of Tony Purdon, Penny’s equivalent of countless GAD point of view characters. A murder doesn’t occur until nearly halfway through the novel, and at that point the baton is passed to series sleuth Inspector Beale to narrate the rest of the tale. It’s an interesting approach to split the narrative, and it definitely had me second guessing how each point of view would influence the evidence in the story.
Eventually Major Adair is found dead in a thoroughly locked room, with all evidence pointing to suicide. Somehow though things don’t quite add up. Why didn’t anyone hear the shot that killed him? Why was another character perched in a tree outside the room where the murder occurred? Why did Adair burn the cipher and kill himself when evidence suggests that he had just solved the puzzle?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and Inspector Beale juggles a dozen minor mysteries as he seeks to prove that Adair’s death wasn’t the suicide it appears to be. It’s good – I’d read these all day – and yet at the same time not quite on the level of what I was hoping for (this was just Penny’s third book, to be fair). In part it’s dragged down by Penny’s one dimensional focus on interactions between the characters. You hardly experience much beyond the conversations that take place or the descriptions of the characters themselves. No room, building, or landscape is described beyond the bare necessity to which it contributes to the story. And that’s too bad, since it all unfolds in a neglected country house that could have been the thing nightmares are made of in the hands of an author like John Dickson Carr.
The bigger weakness though may be the impossibility. To be clear, it is absolutely air tight… too air tight in a way. I’m not going to spoil anything, but skip the rest of this paragraph anyway if you haven’t read this. The room is so locked down that I could only see one possibility for the solution. As much as I hoped (and second guessed myself into thinking) I was wrong, it all played out in the only way I thought it could – aided by a key moment that just stuck in my mind as wrong.
Still, Penny has misdirection to go around, and even though I had spotted the solution, my mind couldn’t quite put two and two together to understand how it all worked out. Pieces come together neatly in the end, although the denouement was one of those that I read and then promptly forget.
I probably sound down on Policeman’s Evidence, but I’d read books like this non-stop. There’s a delightful self awareness in Penny’s writing, which comes through in both Tony Purdon and Inspector Beale. It’s a golden age mystery for the golden age reader, and Penny can’t help but wink as he works his craft.
For some reason – and I don’t even know why I’m bringing this up – I couldn’t help being reminded of Paul Halter’s brilliant The Madman’s Room as I read Policeman’s Evidence. While Halter’s book multiplies the plot and puzzle by about nine in the same span of pages, there was an eerie similarity that I just couldn’t get out of my mind. There’s something about the writing style that just nags at me as being common between the two. Halter wins hands down (although he had a six decade hindsight advantage), but Penny’s effort feels like a spiritual twin – and that’s a compliment.
Christmas season is closing in, and what does my wishlist look like? The Lucky Policeman, Sealed Room Murder, Policeman in Armour (plus some Norman Berrow and Brian Flynn). At least I think I got the order right this time. Thanks JJ.