Sealed Room Murder (1941) – Rupert Penny

One (me) could be forgiven (I am) for retitling this book “The Case of the Vandalized Clothes and Floor”, because I’ll be damned if that isn’t what the first two thirds of this novel focuses on.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ll get your “Sealed Room Murder”, and it will be a doozy, but you’ll put your time in until you get it.  For such a no holds barred smack me down title, Rupert Penny takes his sweet time in getting to what you’re looking for.

Fortunately for Penny, he’s one of the better writers of the Golden Age.  Yeah, you’ll sit through 139 pages of nothing to do with a locked room mystery, but I’ll read anything by an author that can make this out of a character introduction:

“Mrs Harriet Steele, while she lived, was above all a thing of flesh and blood, a solid animate mass which ate and slept and rose unrepentant, which dyed its hair and plagued its associates and weighed thirteen stone seven in its unimaginable nudity.”

The Penny books that I’ve read so far unfold from the perspective of Tony Purdon, Penny’s reliable variation on John Dickson Carr’s Jeff Marle.  Purdon this time is featured as a background character (in a turn that I loved), and the story instead unfolds from the perspective of what I assume is a one off character in the form of Douglas Merton, an employee of an “Enquiry Bureau” – “Any fool can make enquiries, …. but would your best friend call you a sleuth?  I doubt it – I rather doubt it.”

Merton is called to a large estate populated with a vastly unlikeable cast to investigate a series of vandalisms.  Over the course of a few weeks various articles of clothes have been spoiled, a parquet floor has been savaged, and other items have gone missing from around the house.  Penny’s writing keeps it engaging, but man, the vast majority of the story is focused on a series of misdemeanors that wouldn’t make any page of the papers.  I mean, 139 pages without getting to any relevant crime?  You’ve got to take it on a big swig of faith that it’s all going to be worth it, and I guess the title of the book was well chosen in that regard.

The locked room murder, when it happens, takes place so late in the story that I don’t know that I should really give any details.  It’s air tight, for sure, although it was presented in one of those ways where I don’t really think it got my mind spinning on the problem.  That’s a shame, because the solution is gorgeous.  A solution at once devastatingly simple, and yet requiring five diagrams and multiple pages of footnotes to explain.  That may sound complex, but believe me, a single sentence will have you understanding the basic principle of this; the rest is just detailing it out a bit better.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but this strikes me as a unique solution to the classic problem of the locked room.

Speaking of, the book spoils the solution to John Dickson Carr’s belter of a classic The Judas Window, and it hints at the solution to Policeman’s Evidence, so definitely read both books beforehand.

It’s a drawn out affair, yes, but when it comes to reading a story that you can enjoy simply for the prose, who else do you have?  Christianna Brand, Herbert Brean, Norman Berrow, John Dickson Carr, Theodore Roscoe, Anthony Boucher?  Plus, there’s a wonderful self awareness on Penny’s part for where he’s working in the genre.

“All sealed-room murders, whether in books or real life, have the same objects: first to remove the victim or victims, secondly to balk investigation.  If you can trick the police into believing that somebody performed a miracle, you’re safe from anything worse than suspicion.  The essential quality of a miracle is that it can’t be explained, and what can’t be explained isn’t punishable.”

I actually disagree with that statement quite a bit: the presence of an impossibility throws an immense amount of scrutiny on the circumstances of the crime, and I think John Dickson Carr provides several examples where a criminal was caught precisely because they’d accidentally created an impossibility.  Plus, if you can create an evidence free impossible crime, surely you could create an evidence free crime without an impossibility, right?  I mean, I guess the impossibility implicitly provides an alibi for everyone, but at the same time, that levels the playing field for everyone’s alibi, doesn’t it?

Agreeing or not, Penny has a clear focus on what he’s doing, and he executes with purpose.  This is a solution that you inevitably will remember because it feels so novel and yet so obvious.  All three Penny novels that I’ve read so far have been really enjoyable on account of solid writing, but I think Sealed Room Murder – while not as good of an overall read as The Lucky Policeman – will be the one that stands out because of the cleverness of the locked room (a night and day better solution than Policeman’s Evidence).

20 thoughts on “Sealed Room Murder (1941) – Rupert Penny”

  1. I’m saving my copy of “Sealed Room Murder” for a special occasion – glad to hear it contains a good puzzle! I really enjoyed “Policeman’s Evidence” – and if “Sealed Room Murder” is even better, then I’m excited. 🤩 I like to keep the best for last, and so will keep “Lucky Policeman” as my final Penny novel.

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    1. I think Policeman’s Evidence had a bit of a better set up with the jewel hunt, but then it slightly meandered. Sealed Room Murder kind of flips that around; meandering considerably before getting to some really good stuff.

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    2. “Evidence” is one of my favourites in the illusory locked room category, where misinterpretation of an event is key. The other is the mechanical locked room, and in that regard “The Kennel Murder Case” still reigns supreme for me. But I digress. SRM is worth checking out if your reserves of patience are equal to your enthusiasm for locked room mysteries because its one, slow burn.

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      1. You’re in a minority when if it comes to gimmicky/mechanical locked room-tricks, which many consider to be an inferior approach to the locked room problem, but I’ve learned it all depends on whose plotting/writing them. I’ve come across some first-class examples of the mechanical locked room over the years.

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        1. I can see why the non mechanical locked rooms might be more favoured. Predicated as they are on reader psychology, assumption and misdirection, they can deliver a devastating reveal/inversion that their more gimmicky counterparts cannot. Still, I find there’s immense satisfaction to be found in an honest locked room achieved solely through guile and technical ingenuity. So if you can point me in the direction of one or two, please do.

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          1. Well, that’s tough to point you to some good ones, because then you’d know that they are in fact mechanical. And that kind of ruins part of the mystery, doesn’t it? John Dickson Carr has a very good short story that I don’t see too widely talked about

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            1. And that’s fine. I’m someone who ruined Hollow Man for himself ahead of time, and was spoiled on the denouement to Murder on the Orient Express. And I still enjoyed both all the same. Often it’s more about the trick than the story for me.

              Btw I think I know which Carr you mean. Blink once if it’s synonymous with The Residence in Gnome Forest. It’s on my radar.

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          2. So if you can point me in the direction of one or two, please do.

            My conscience doesn’t allow me to dump such a blatant spoiler-themed list out in the open. There are innocent, wide-eyed mystery fans reading these blogs and comments, you know. 🙂

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  2. I’m afraid I found the first two-thirds so dull and dragged out that, when the locked room murder finally happened, even I didn’t care anymore and one of the maps gave away too much. It wasn’t difficult to grasp why the floor had to be damaged in such a way. However, Sealed Room Murder can easily be whittled down to an excellent novella, but the novel-length treatment of the idea simply isn’t worth the time you have to put into it. Even with a unique (yes, it is) locked room-trick, I wouldn’t recommend it to other locked room enthusiasts.

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    1. If this was any other writer I probably would have abandoned this by the midway point, but Penny’s prose managed to keep me oddly engaged. I do think the problem/solution is worthy of a full length novel (as opposed to say Rawson’s From Another World), but yeah, you’d want a different plot written around it.

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  3. “This is a solution that you inevitably will remember because it feels so novel and yet so obvious.”
    I have read this one, a while back, but I am afraid I cannot remember anything about the solution short of the fact it used too many diagrams!

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    1. Ha, well, I stand corrected! The numerous diagrams are a bit funny, because you’re flipping back and forth between five pages trying to figure out which diagram is being referenced. A map back of course would have been perfect.

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  4. I am, naturally, delighted that you’re getting as much out of Penny as you are. This was my first, and it’s the only one I’ve not reviewed at my place, and it delighted me in all the ways you outline above: yes, it’s a long wait for the sealed room, but on the way to that problem there’s some lovely prose and some gorgeously acidulous descriptions of some really rather wonderfully unlikeable people.

    And, yeah, I’m sure the solution was original at the time; I had the misfortune to read it in a short story from 30 years later before encountering it here, which is annoying, but it’s still a real thrill to see how the earlier events converge on that solution here.

    Count your Pennys now, only a handful remain…

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  5. I have fond memories of this one, my first Penny. The very slow and protracted build up meant I needed several sittings to plow through it, but the puzzle and the solution are special. Depending on what day it is, I’ll either recall it as one of the most brilliantly conceived locked rooms there’s ever been, or the most ridiculous and overdone. I prefer Policeman’s Evidence which felt better structured and had a wonderfully simple yet clever and audacious solution, but SRM certainly feels more unique. And god bless it for all those diagrams.

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