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Locked Room Reviews:
Sealed Room Murder by Rupert Penny (1940)
One of the Golden Age greats!
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When Edward D. Hoch conducted his famous 1981 survey of mystery authors and critics to determine their favourite impossible crime novels, he clearly missed one of the very best Golden Age locked rooms. Rupert Penny is listed in Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders for Sealed Room Murder and Policeman’s Evidence, and the latter even made it onto Hoch’s list – near the end – but this classic locked room case wasn’t even rated. In my opinion, this is quite unaccountable, as this is an extremely good example of the classic genre, with a far better locked room plot than several of the volumes that came out right near the top of Hoch’s famous locked room library list! (Locked Room Library by John Pugmire)
Rupert Penny was one of the great puzzle masters of the Golden Age, writing eight extremely well crafted mysteries, but he is too seldom given the credit he deserves. Very little is actually known about his life. Gadetection only notes that: “Rupert Penny (1909-1970) was a pseudonym for English (some sources Australian) writer and crossword expert Ernest Basil Charles Thornett, who also wrote as Martin Tanner. His series character was Chief Inspector Beale of Scotland Yard.”
This Golden Age puzzler opens when the widowed, and long past her prime, Mrs Harriet Steele, enters the offices of the Enquiry Bureau, owned and operated by Thomas Courtney Butt. After a brief consultation with Butt, she hires the detective agency to investigate a series of malicious pranks which have occurred at her rather ugly, but stately, London suburban home, The Firs.
Douglas Merton, the nephew of Butt, is assigned to the case, and is rather sheepishly brought up to speed on Harriet’s illustrious past by his uncle. It seems that his eminently respectable employer had once been rather enamoured with the young Harriet – in a previous incarnation as a comedian working the provincial music halls! However, those days are long past, and a case is a case, so Merton arrives at the mansion that same day, prepared to take up residence until he can identify the culprit. The only ones with any opportunity to commit these acts of domestic terror are the residents of The Firs. The entire family has long lived together under the same roof, first under old Andrew Sturges Steele who died in 1906, then under the younger Andrew Steele, Harriet’s husband, prior to his death 18 months earlier. The household consists of the late Andrew’s mother, Mrs Mary Glen, who remarried, only to be once again widowed by an accident; as well as Andrew’s three younger sisters, Olive and Violet Steele, both still spinsters, and the middle sister Caroline, who briefly married before being widowed when her husband finally succumbed to his war injuries in 1922. However, her short marriage had resulted in the birth of two children, now also grown tenants of The Firs, the beautiful Linda Whitehead, who quickly vamps Merton, and her younger brother, Henry Whitehead, a wireless enthusiast. The rest of the residential cast consists of George Rice, Harriet Steele’s besotted brother, a perky maid, Bessie Holland, and an extremely untalented cook, Mrs Pippitt.
Merton wisely assumes that this case will be a long and complicated affair, as all the members of the family have quite an excellent motive, thanks to Andrew Steele’s abominably wicked last testament. Many mystery plots, especially during the Golden Age, revolved around the deadly influence of ill considered wills, but this one must be the worst of the lot! It is a purely evil plan designed to keep the entire family in a constant state of conflict for the foreseeable future. Steele had been no paragon of virtue; in fact he had been a rather sleazy lawyer and womanizer, who had taken Harriet away from ‘the stage’, a nice way of describing her rescue from a trick roller skating act working the music halls, Britain’s equivalent of Vaudeville. The terms of Steele’s murderous will were actually quite simple. Harriet inherited the house and all contents, and the entire income of his estate, for as long as she continued to maintain a home for the other members of the clan. Should she die, the estate would be equally divided amongst her husband’s family, but for as long as she is alive, they are reduced to abject poverty. To make a bad situation even worse, Harriet has taken this will as a challenge, and created an intolerable totalitarian regime, in the hope that her loathsome relatives would pack up and leave for more than a month, thereby forfeiting their portion of the estate.
Merton now finds himself trapped in the middle of this waking nightmare; tasked with finding out who poured indelible ink into Mrs Steele’s lingerie drawer; who smashed the face of one of her prized clocks; and who, most recently, cut a piece from the back of her expensive mink coat. However, the prankster is just getting started. Merton has barely arrived on the scene, when they discover that all the chiming clocks in Harriet’s vast collection have been rendered silent, and the following day someone sneaks into Mrs Steele’s bedroom, while workers are noisily fixing a bathroom sink, and horribly mutilates her beloved parquet floor, leaving an ugly track of destruction from the hall door to the door of her unused dressing room on the opposite wall. As usual, all deny any involvement in this destructive act, so Merton can only advise the widow to install a good lock and bolt on the door. He then concentrates on trying to understanding the complex dynamics of this superbly dysfunctional family. The only bright spot in this seething mass of dark hatred is the lovely Linda, and Merton soon becomes quite infatuated. However, he has also made himself a target, a fact which is brought home by a nasty warning, typed on a postcard and stuck into a book admittedly left on his bed by Linda. Around this time, he also becomes aware of a series of small thefts that are later carefully planted to cast suspicion on the drunken cook.
The next morning, the brewing tension is ramped up to a new level when the irresprisibly mean Harriet exacts her revenge for the parquet floor, by slicing an 18′ long by 2′ wide runner from Mother Glen’s long cherished purple sitting room carpet, which had also been left to Harriet by her late spouse. Her revenge is finally complete when she lays down this regal runner to cover the damaged parquet inside her sanctum. Yet, later that same day, the vandal strikes again, but this time the target is Olive’s prize delphiniums which are ripped from their beds, while the three sisters are busy burning the remainder of their mother’s treasured carpet on the other side of the house.
Merton briefly escapes this bedlam when he interviews Violet’s fiancé and Mrs Steele’s solicitor, William Briggs. The prospect of marrying a potential heir, also provides Briggs with a good motive for preferring Mrs Steele dead, rather than face a nasty future living under her reign of terror. The detective quickly realizes that Briggs is not being completely honest, and discovers that Mrs Steele has a large insurance policy, not covered by the will, which may provide a monetary motive for her brother, George Rice. It is also soon revealed that Harriet is in touch with a secret illegitimate daughter, providing a potential source of blackmail for the always impoverished George – the only one likely to know about this long ago event.
Merton next reports back to Butt and they analyze his progress, before he finally returns to The Firs, just in time to get caught in the middle of a violent battle between Caroline and Olive, which leaves him drenched with a noxious sulpher poison meant for the roses. That Saturday evening, Mrs Steele is out, and the sisters and Linda are off visiting friends, so Merton amuses himself by playing billiards with Henry. The others finally return, but Linda apparently heads straight to bed, soon followed by Mrs Glen and the sisters, with hot milk and cocoa to induce slumber. It is only when Merton finally heads upstairs, that he finds a note from Linda asking him to meet her in the cellar. He quietly slips back downstairs, opens the cellar door – and the lights go out! He awakes sometime later, bound and gagged, lying on a cold stone floor. After a momentous struggle, Merton eventually escapes his bonds and lights a match, only to discover Linda, bound, gagged, and naked, lying nearby. She is quickly freed, but escape from the cellar proves quite impossible – allowing romance its hour. By morning Merton has proposed, and Linda has, of course, accepted!
As the fourth morning of Merton’s investigation dawns, they are finally freed from the cellar by Merton’s uncle, only to discover that murder has paid a visit during their absence from the plot. Harriet has been found – stabbed in the middle of her back – inside her locked and bolted bedroom, while apparently quite alone, performing her Saturday night clock winding ritual. In charge of the homicide case is Chief Inspector Beale of New Scotland Yard, assisted by his close friend and cohort Tony Purdon, editor of a financial paper. Beale is certainly no slouch, he is one of Scotland Yard’s best, but even he can find no means of busting this locked room scenario. It seems that Harriet Steele was impossibly alone at the time of her death inside a sealed chamber where no one could have inflicted her fatal wound! Still, Beale is well aware of the motive for this extraordinary hocus pocus, when he notes: “The essential quality of a miracle is that it can’t be explained, and what can’t be explained isn’t punishable.”
This is one of my favourite locked room cases, with what I believe to be a totally original locked room device. The only possible criticism of this locked room involves the probability that this method would, far more often than not, fail to produce the desired results, leaving the murderer with a messy unfinished or half-finished job that would be very hard to explain! It is also dependent on the murderer’s pranks causing a very exact chain of reactions, which seems highly unlikely. However, it is a wonderfully detailed plot, and Penny quite literally blocks every plausible objection with at least a semi-reasonable answer. Without giving a spoiler alert, I can say little more about this ingenious plot, except perhaps to note that the only real flaw has to do with the level of noise which would be generated during the assault and the extent of Harriet Steele’s deafness. The final explanation is extremely technical, and backed up by a host of great diagrams. In fact, if you are not a true locked room fan, it is possible that this exacting solution might cause some drowsiness – though I was wide awake long past my usual hour! This book has not received much critical attention, but the few reviews all agree that this solution is definitely worthy of the great John Dickson Carr!
This novel is also wickedly humorous, with extremely well developed characters, plenty of clues, and reasonable psychological motivation, courtesy of that cruel will. Penny even transcends that line between puzzle master and word painter by incorporating several lyrical descriptions inside a very complex plot. His dialogue is also engaging, he allows Merton to provide regular detailed reviews of the evidence, and he gives us one of the best fair play challenges of the era, adding a few secondary questions that are actually subtle hints. This book is literally about as fair play as they come. There is not one single piece of evidence that is not kept in plain sight, a claim which few locked room novels can match. Some reviewers have found that the extended set up of the murder, which takes up the first two thirds of the book, is far too long, though I strongly disagree. If you really want a flawless puzzle, such attention to detail is absolutely essential and there is very little extraneous padding. This plot actually moves along at a nice steady pace, but this is no express train thriller. Instead, it is an intricate master mystery intended for those who love a perfect puzzle and hate even the slightest missing piece of evidence!
However, all is not perfect! The howdunnit of the locked room is quite superb, but the basic whodunnit fails quite miserably. I was very close to the solution of the locked room, only missing one small but essential part of the trick, but when it came to the question of who is the prankster and/or murderer, I thought I had it figured out quite early – then kept waiting for Penny to pull a last minute switch and prove me wrong – it just seemed far too obvious! Unfortunately, that final surprise never happened! With a bit of a twist in the ending, this would have been a near perfect five star treat, but without this aspect of the mystery, the best I can do is a good solid four stars. Perhaps I am being too picky? This is truly one of the great locked room puzzles, so must we still demand a great whodunit? I have no good answer for this last question, so a cascade of roses to Penny for an amazingly detailed locked room puzzle, accompanied by a couple of small rotten tomatoes for such a lame whodunnit!
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