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.
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).