An interesting feature of Rupert Penny’s The Talkative Policeman, which I mentioned the other day, was his introductory note, in which he expounds on what he sees as the lack of longevity of the detective story: ‘The detective shall find his grave at last as surely as the lifeless flesh he theorised upon.’
He identifies Holmes as the sole exception to this: he and Watson ‘are, first and foremost, characters, and the rest is incidental. At a guess, it is not impossible that Lord Peter Wimsey may one day qualify to keep them company.’ No mention of Poirot or Miss Marple here, and by the time Penny wrote this, Wimsey had solved his last major case!
For Penny, plainly, the plot was the thing, and this was no doubt why, after the Second World War, he did not return to the genre: it had moved on, and elaborate puzzles of the kind he favoured were no longer in fashion. It is a shame that he abandoned the genre, though, since he (like the much more eminent Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, who also gave up writing crime novels in the post-war era) had genuine talent as a writer, a talent which in his case never fully flowered.
I suppose Penny would have been amazed had he been told that, more than seventy years after his debut novel was published, it has reappeared in a fresh and appealing version, courtesy of Ramble House. Of course, it is true that minor writers like Penny are forgotten by most readers nowadays, but the appeal of ingenious mysteries has by no means faded. The detective as a character, and the detective story as a form, have proved much more flexible, and thus enjoyed much greater longevity, than some of their creators over the years have anticipated.