Review 1000 minus 3 – Policeman In Armour by Rupert Penny

There’s a snail murderer on the loose. Some vicious blaggard has apparently stepped on a snail and then tracked bits of its corpse through a window and into Mr Justice Everett’s bedroom. Oh, and they stabbed the judge when they were in there and, unless the obvious suspect did it, escaped noiselessly from a sort-of locked room.

Enter Inspector Beale and his chum Tony (and the oddly named DS Horsey Matthews) to uncover a mystery concerning changed wills, threatening letters, a sort-of impossible murder of a man and a not-at-all impossible murder of a snail…

“I wouldn’t start here with Penny.”

The words not of me, but of my esteemed fellow blogger, the locked-room enthusiast JJ, he of The Invisible Event. But as his love of the author is evident, I asked a friend to lend me a copy of a good Penny, and I was lent this one. Which is fine, except for the fact that the friend in question was JJ himself. Now, JJ is a cunning weasel, and I’m guessing that he’s adopted a ploy that I’ve often considered, namely lending a crap book from an obscure author to stop a fellow Golden Age enthusiast becoming competition in the classic game of Hunt-The-Affordable-Copy. I already regret lending Kate (of Cross Examing Crime) Brian Flynn’s somewhat wonderful Tread Softly rather than the amazingly crap Conspiracy At Angel.

I digress. If that was JJ’s cunning plan, I’m afraid to say that it has failed. Mostly.

This isn’t a perfect book. There are faults – it does tread water a bit in the middle section, and our lead sleuth does go very abruptly from “not having a clue” to “knowing everything about the case” between chapters. It’s almost as if there’s a missing page when Inspector Beale gets a phone call from Rupert Penny who explains the plot to him. And as to the mechanics of the crime, in the discussions at least, there’s more than a whiff of the “railway timetable” about it all. Oh, and the motive’s a bit iffy, too.

But there are some beautiful things here. The central mechanic of the sort-of impossible crime is beautiful, almost as deceptively simple as, say, the rationale behind the “falling out the window” murder of The Demon of Dartmoor, and there is more than a hint of Christie in the sense that the supporting characters have been up to more minor shenanigans which explain some of the more red-herringy aspects of the crime. While the exact details of the how are a little more complicated than I’d prefer, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, as it’s much easier to follow than the similarly complex The Dead Room by Herbert Resnicow.

So, in general, this has left me wanting more from Penny. I can see the potential for him having written a true classic of the genre – this isn’t it, but the potential is there. Unfortunately, he only wrote nine novels, so only eight more to check… Luckily they’ve all been re-issued by Ramble House – not too cheap, but hopefully worth it.

8 comments

  1. That scoundrel! Why didn’t JJ give you a copy of Penny’s enviable masterpiece – Policeman’s Holiday? You love word puzzles and that book includes an acrostic that has two completely different solutions! Plus the book is riddled with utterly strange GAD style bizarreness that reminded me of Carr at his best. Oh well…

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, I toyed with lending PD Policeman’s Holiday (and The Lucky Policeman. And Policeman’s Evidence. And Sealed Room Murder — though TimCat would never have forgiven me for that last one…) but this won out because — er — I thought it would be a good place to start. No, this means I’m not following my own advice. Maybe he’d’ve liked it even more if I’d gone with something else, eh…?

      Glad you found this to your liking overall, Doc — Noah and I need someone else on Team Penny. As noted below, Talkative Policeman is a touch verbose, but with only Sweet Poison of the Penny novels left to read I’d say that enjoying this one indicates you’ll find much to enjoy in any of the others.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. the oddly named DS Horsey Matthews

    Maybe he’s a bent copper? Y’know, just slip ‘im a pony an’ ‘e’ll look the uvver way . . .

    Penny sounds good, although I think I’ll follow John’s suggestion and keep an eye out for Policeman’s Holiday instead. But thanks for the tip!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks to JJ’s recommendation, I’ve read four Penny novels to date: ‘Evidence’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Talkative’ and ‘Armour’. ‘Evidence’, in my opinion, is excellent – despite the challenging narrative in the first third or so, the novel offers an impressive puzzle-mystery. 😁

    I take a slightly different view from John, I think, in that I rate ‘Armour’ as the next best Penny novel I’ve read. Maybe this doesn’t bode well for your relationship with Penny…! But I definitely recommend ‘Evidence’. 🤩

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Just as well you didn’t start with ‘The Talkative Policeman’ – that one goes on so long that by the time the villain was unmasked, I’d forgotten that such a character existed.

    Liked by 1 person

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