Friday, 14 August 2009

Forgotten Book - The Lucky Policeman


Although I didn’t contribute to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books when I was sailing in the Med last Friday, I was busy at the time sitting in the sun and devouring a minor classic of the past which deserves to be highlighted this week.

Rupert Penny is a British writer who flourished briefly just before, and at the start of, the Second World War. He wrote convoluted puzzle stories in the best traditions of classic Golden Age detective fiction – and then he disappeared from sight (at least as a crime writer – a lover of flowers as well as ciphers and puzzles, he spent time working in Bletchley and he later became a doyen of the British Iris Society.)

Penny’s books were published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, but have become very scarce and expensive. Happily, that excellent publisher Ramble House has brought out several of his books, and supplied my copy of The Lucky Policeman. Suffice to say that it is the most enjoyable Penny novel I have read so far.

The set-up is excellent. An American shrink, Hilary Peake, has come to England and set up a private asylum (oddly, to my mind, it only has two patients, one of whom plays no effective part in the mystery, rather dashing one of my own theories about the puzzle.) When Simon Selby escapes from his quarters and disappears, we are presented with a variant on the ‘locked room’ concept, but matters take a more serious turn when a series of murders take place in the New Forest nearby. The local police are duly baffled, and send for Penny’s regular detective, the likeable Inspector Beale. Beale, as usual (although inexplicably) is accompanied by his pal and personal Watson, Tony Purdon, though Tony doesn’t play much of a part in the story.

There is a direct challenge to the reader to guess what has happened – shades of Ellery Queen and C.Daly King. I confess that I fell for Penny’s red herrings and got the solution wrong .The explanation for the mystery is cunning, if inevitably far-fetched and all in all this was wonderful holiday reading. Ramble House deserve heartfelt congratulations for making this lost classic available to modern puzzle fans at a very reasonable price.

12 comments:

Table Talk said...

Penny I've heard of, although never read, but Ramble House is new to me and I'm off to look at their catalogue now. Please don't tell my bank manager!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This sounds like a winner. Did the red herrings carry on too long (did you feel tricked?) or were they just carefully woven into the plot and you thought you were picking up on a clue?

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

R. T. said...

Thank you for including the Rupert Penny title, which I shall now have to find and read. As much as anyone else, you are responsible for adding to my increasingly unmanageable "must read" book pile. In Penny's case, he may have to move to the front of the line based on your comments and recommendation.

Martin Edwards said...

Table Talk - one consolation is that the new editions are a lot cheaper than the originals!
Elizabeth - I felt Penny did a clever job. The solution was a bit far-fetched, but he carried it off well.
R.T. - yep, I'm a bad influence! If you like classic puzzle mysteries, then you will like Penny, I think.

vegetableduck said...

I think Penny relates a bit more to Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, in that he emphasizes the artificial, playful, "game" aspects of detection and seems less self-serious than the humdrums. He seems "American" in that sense to me. It's odd to me that he wasn't originally printed in the US.

I have a xerox copy of Talkative Policeman, if you would like a scan to review. I believe this and the intriguingly-titled She Had To Have Gas have not been reprinted (yet?).

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, you are right, they have not been reprinted and are devilishly hard to find - so of course I would be absolutely delighted to have a xerox copy if it is possible!

R. T. said...

Your exchange of a photocopy reminds me of the thin ice that must be negotiated in such matters in the U.S. because of copyright laws and the Fair Use Doctrine , which I presume does not encumber people quite as much in the U.K. My curiosity is tweaked because of my position as a university instructor where we are constantly on guard against making mistakes that will cost us or our universities legal fees and embarrassment. Don't misunderstand me here. I'm not throwing down the gauntlet of a challenge. I'm merely curious about whether or not the U.K. has similar issues with respect to photocopying and sharing books that may not be in the public domain. In fact, I'm sure the U.K. has quite different public domain rules.

Martin Edwards said...

The rules are different, R.T., but the basic point is the same - all authors, certainly including me, need to have copyright properly and fairly protected. Books of, say, the last thirty years or so are one thing, though, much older books are another. The position with impossible-to-find rarities of the distant past is special, in that firstly it's usually fair use to utilise a copy for discussion on a blog or website, and secondly we need ways of making such texts available for the benefit of both readers and writers (and their families and estates.) Rupert Penny is a case in point - his son, even, has not been able to find all his father's books, so when we were in touch, I was more than happy to offer him a photocopy of one of the missing titles. I've been in touch with numerous writers' familiies over the years, and their priority in my experience is always to ensure that their parents' work is not forgotten or lost to readers forever. If they can reap some financial reward, as happens from time to time, that is a welcome bonus.

vegetableduck said...

I doubt the Rupert Penny estate is going to sue me for making a single photocopy of a fantastically rare, decades long out-of-print book available to Martin to review on his informative site (as R. T.'s own words suggest, Martin is making sales for Rupert Penny by reviewing his books). If Ramble House reprints this particular title, I imagine Martin would buy a copy anyway (he's not cheap!). Few people would prefer a photocopy to an actual book, I suspect. This isn't a nefarious scheme to avoid paying $18 to Ramble House.

I happen to be near completing a definitive work on the Golden Age detective novel in Britain. I buy the actual books whenever I can, but on a very rare number of occasions I have read photocopied items. In all these cases there was no copy available for continued reference. I'm a Ph.D. and an author and I believe I'm amply covered by fair use.

It's interesting that you know Rupert Penny's son, Martin. I want to ask you more about that, but I had better save that for an email!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Curt. What you say about fair use is, I'm sure, absolutely right. And, as you say, I can't imagine anyone preferring a copy to an actual book.

robertarood said...

The Rupert Penny looks like fun - but what really caught my eye here was the phrase "sailing in the Med."

I'm sighing deeply and remembering Italy...

Martin Edwards said...

Absolutely, Roberta! It really is a lovely part of the world.