I read my first Rupert Penny book, Policeman’s Evidence, just a few months back. The combination of a hidden treasure hunt and a locked room mystery checked some key boxes I’m looking for, and although the result wasn’t by any means a jaw dropper, I’ve been keen to get back to Penny ever since. Fortunately Christmas morning found my Penny stack a little higher, and so this time I decided to dive into what JJ at The Invisible Event decreed to be Penny’s best work – The Lucky Policeman.
Well, there are no caches of treasure tucked away in ruined mansions, nor murders behind locked doors. In fact there isn’t really any sort of gimmick or impossibility at all. It’s a somewhat straight forward affair – well, ok, there’s an escaped lunatic running around a forest stabbing people in the head with a sharpened pipe and stealing their shoes – and yet somehow it’s exquisite.
That The Lucky Policeman and Policeman’s Evidence were both written in 1938 simply boggles my mind. My only explanation is that Rupert Penny must have been the pen name for two separate authors (it wasn’t), one of which was much more talented than the other. You see, although Policeman’s Evidence had this wonderful set up, it lacked any flourish. The story unfolded almost completely through dialog, with little description of setting, scene, or action. In contrast, The Lucky Policeman absolutely sings.
Penny’s on fire from a writing perspective, providing a gifted sense of observation that harkens back to John Dickson Carr at his best, mixed with the condescending wit of Anthony Berkeley or Christianna Brand. Chapter five, which concludes with the first murder, is as good of a passage as anything I can recall reading. If you have this on your shelf, do yourself a favor and just read that chapter, set the book down, and get back to whatever else you were doing.
As far as the plot goes, well, I kind of already covered it. A patient has escaped from a mental institute under circumstances teetering salivatingly close to the impossible, but alas not. A manhunt proves fruitless, but a week or so later, villagers start disappearing left and right. Then the bodies start turning up, each with a pierced skull and a missing shoe. When a policeman joins the ranks of the victims, the locals are forced to bring in Scotland Yard.
Scotland Yard comes in the form of Penny series detective Edward Beale, with Watson-esque friend Tony Purdon in tow. Beale isn’t a super detective though, and we’re exposed to all of his confusion, worries, and stumbles. It’s through Beale’s theories that Penny deftly discards the reader’s own. All of those conclusions you’re going to jump to will be dealt with a due time, which is a saving grace when you think that you may have seen the solution with half the book remaining.
As much as I enjoyed this read – and I savored nearly every page of it – things came out a touch dry in the end. Penny provides a banquet-sized denouement, running a good 30 pages, and yet it was the point where the whole thing faltered. It’s one of those solutions where I felt like I was being told what happened, rather than experiencing a series of revelations. Yeah, everything checked out – the math worked and the puzzle fit together – but not in any way that really satisfied.
And so, The Lucky Policeman joins the ranks of those excellent GAD novels that you should read in spite of the mystery. So often for me, a mystery novel is 100% about getting to the solution. The chapters can’t fly past fast enough; I want to know the who and how. But every so often, you get that perfect read where you savor the journey to that destination: Hardly a Man is Now Alive, Wilders Walk Away, The Red Widow Murders, The Problem of the Wire Cage. That’s not to disregard how the puzzle presented by the crimes play into drawing the reader into the story, but it’s the story itself that excels in the end.
I’m immensely thankful that Ramble House somehow got the inspiration to bring these Rupert Penny books back into print. From what I can tell, these books were pretty much only available in hardback format, and there they would have moldered away outside of our consciousness. To imagine that fate befalling The Lucky Policeman is beyond imagination, but it does stimulate the hope that there are others like it out there, still waiting to be discovered.