Rupert Penny was one of the most interesting writers of the late Golden Age, and his 1937 debut novel, The Talkative Policeman, is my choice for today’s entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. It is a book that was for many years almost impossible to find, but is now available at a modest price in a pleasing paperback edition, thanks to that splendid small press Ramble House, who have reprinted all the elusive Penny titles.
The book features a Challenge to the Reader, in the Ellery Queen style, and Penny claims (Ias far as I know, rightly) that he was the first British writer to adopt this explicit method of testing the reader’s ability to guess the solution to a highly convoluted puzzle. The book introduces Chief Inspector Beale, of Scotland Yard, a very likeable detective, who is accompanied almost at all times by his chum Tony Purdon, who acts as Watson to Beale’s Holmes. Nobody ever seems to object to Purdon’s presence at witness interviews, and this illustrates the artificiality of the story, in which plot complication is really all that matters (even though there are hints that Penny could have created more rounded characters had he chosen to do so – he did not lack literary talent.)
Beale is rapidly called in by the local force when the Rector of the small village of Wyre is found murdered. He has been battered to death by a blunt instrument. Yet he seems to have led a blameless life – so what can possibly be the motive for the crime?
Penny provides not one but two crime scene maps, and a miscellany of charts as a vast range of plot issues (including that old Golden Age stand-by, train times) are canvassed. The discussions are often very intelligent, and Penny (real name, Basil Thornett) was clearly a very smart guy – I gather he worked at Bletchley, the decoding centre, during the Second World War.
I enjoyed the period feel of this book, but it became over-long and one of the key characters almost disappeared from sight, a structural weakness. I confess I failed the Challenge to the Reader (though I did prefer my own solution to Penny’s, that was no doubt due to prejudice on my part!) The criticism often made of this kind of book is, of course, that the author pays too much attention to complicating the puzzle, and not enough to characterisation and setting. But a ‘fair play’ puzzle does have much to commend it, in my opinion. Where this book suffers in comparison to the best of Christie, for instance, is that there is too much technical stuff, and an inadequately portrayed culprit and motive. But the journey towards the denouement is an agreeable time-passer and the book has genuine historic interest.