I’ve mentioned before my enthusiasm for the work of the little known Golden Age writer Rupert Penny, and my choice for today’s Forgotten Book is the last mystery that Basil Thornett wrote under that pen-name, She Had to Have Gas. It was published in 1939; during the war, Thornett worked, most appropriately, as a cryptographer, and after peace was declared, he did not return to the genre.
In this book, as with other mysteries featuring Penny’s regular investigator, Inspector Beale, the cop’s pal, stockbroker and journalist Tony Purdon, is on hand to assist. But it has to be said that Tony’s presence in the stories was never easy to justify, and here his role is pretty superfluous.
The book begins splendidly, with the owner of a modest East Anglian B&B worrying about the creditworthiness of her sole guest. She is right to worry: soon she has good reason to believe the woman has gassed herself. But then the body of the apparent victim disappears – what is going on? Meanwhile, the spoiled niece of a famous crime writer has vanished, and one is tempted to believe that she was living a double life in the guest-house. With Rupert Penny, though, nothing is simple.
In fact, the plot is so elaborate that it comes close to sinking under the weight of its own cleverness. As with a number of similar books, I found the opening scenes and the revelations by far the best parts of the story. In between,there was much that was verging on the turgid. But there is a 'challenge to the reader' and a cluefinder to compensate. Penny was an appealing author and this book, for all its flaws, appealed to me.