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.