The Policeman’s Evidence (1938) by Rupert Penny

I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that if Ramble House has fans, J.J. of The Invisible Event is one of them. If Ramble House has no fans, J.J. is dead. Between his emphatic praise of the works of Rupert Penny and the works of Norman Berrow, and the fact that both authors appeared in his top 15 impossible crime novels, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else in the mystery blogosphere is as excited about the Ramble House reprints as J.J.. And the excitement is as infectious as smallpox! About half a year ago I read and positively reviewed The Footprints of Satan by Norman Berrow, and now I’ve finally made my way to J.J.’s other Bramble House locked-room favorite The Policeman’s Evidence.

Ernest Basil Charles Thornett is an English “crossword expert” who, under the pseudonym “Rupert Penny”, wrote a series of detective novels featuring Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Beale and narrated by his watsonian pal Anthony Purdon, starting with the 1936 The Talkative Policeman and ending with Sealed Room Murder in 1941. The Policeman’s Evidence is his fifth novel to focus on Chief Inspector Beale.

Major Adair, a skilled cryptographer from the Great War, catches wind of a document from a miserly, hunchbacked former tenant of a now-decrepit manor that somewhere on the premises a great treasure is hidden. The ever ambitious Major assembles a crack team of hired-guns, daughters, employees, friends, enemies and randoms to help him scour the home for any sign of the treasure or more hints to its whereabouts, which leads him to a seemingly insurmountable riddle in an old shorthand code and a valuable ruby. He recluses himself in his study to tackle the riddle… and just as he is on the cusp on uncovering the meaning behind the message, the ruby is stolen and Adair apparently destroys all of his work and shoots himself inside of his study. Of course it had to be suicide! After all, how could Major Adair have been murdered in his study with double-treble-bolted, locked door, and shuttered and latched window? Only Inspector Beale isn’t convinced, and sets about making an unofficial case of the death…

The Policeman’s Evidence is a shockingly intricate enterprise, touched up with delightfully pulpy self-awareness that never did become too much, and hugely readable prose that keeps the book drifting along nicely even during its slowest moments. More than anything, The Policeman’s Evidence is fun to read — and it’s clear as day Penny had fun writing it, too. The detective in particular is a bit of a character, and a delightful departure from the typical “humored and bemused but impersonal saint” supersleuth we’re used to, with Beale having no reservations being honest with his sometimes not-totally-polite opinions on the members of the household.

This novel is a puzzle plot, purely and simply, and it’s been a long while since I’ve had the delight of reading a crime puzzle that’s such a delicate tapestry of clues woven with this level deftness and dexterity. Part of me was a bit skeptical about this near the end of the book. The murder doesn’t take place until pretty much the exact, perfect midpoint of the narration, and there are some points where it felt like they were trying to get a book’s length of investigation into half that page real estate, and some (admittedly unimportant) information was handled pretty inelegantly. However, come the denouement, I was shocked to find out how many seemingly mundane and innocuous interactions from upwards of damn near 80 pages before the murder occurred were actually integral to piecing the whole picture together, and some of them are so insanely clever that it’s hard not to be in awe at Penny’s ingenuity.

The locked-room itself is, and this will make the most sense after reading the novel, better than it had any right to be. The physical artifice of how the locked-room was executed is nothing to write home about, being an ages-old cliche that even in 1938 people were likely just a bit tired of. However, The Policeman’s Evidence is probably the purest piece of proof of the idea that as much as we may seek out totally new, entirely innovative answers to the question of “how can murder be committed inside of a locked room?”, sometimes that’s not possible, and an otherwise mundane solution can still strike like a bolt of lightning when the misdirection backing it is so salient, deft and powerful! Sure, the room is so “over-looked” that it’s hard to not guess at part of the core of the solution, but to fill in all of the necessary blanks, dot your i’s and cross your t’s is another thing all together, and this book does a good job at keeping you on your toes nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the novel isn’t quite the masterstroke I’d love for it to be. For starters, I can think of a dozen ways that the solution to the encrypted riddle could’ve played a more intimate part in the mystery than it did, and yet it… didn’t. Aside from playing the twin role of MacGuffin/trap-for-the-killer, the solution to the riddle was unceremoniously wrapped up in a two-page appendix slap-dab at the end of the novel, after the narration proper had already ended. It only served to give the reader an extra “for your consideration” puzzle, and almost never mentioned in remarkable detail for the remainder of the novel. It felt like a criminally underutilized plotpoint, for something that dominated basically the entire first half of the book leading up to the murder.

Furthermore, some events which led the detective to the solution felt like they happened solely to lead the detective to the solution. More than in almost any other Golden Age puzzler, there were times that I could feel the detective got wildly lucky in this unrelated person making this specific decision, or this unrelated person making this specific observation. Perhaps that’s true in nearly every crime novel of this sort, but there’s one or two specific examples here that feel especially egregious. They weren’t mistakes that occurred organically in the throes of committing the crime, or covering it up, but just things that happened independently of the criminal committing the crime that just so happened to establish necessary evidence for the feature sleuth. This isn’t a deal-breaker, so to speak, but I do feel as if there could’ve been better ways to establish the same information without the overwhelming chance.

All-in-all, The Policeman’s Evidence is another successful reprint from Ramble House, and another successful recommendation from J.J. to me. A salient, complex puzzle that wastes a few plot threads and ends up tripping itself up in some small parts of its long list of fantastic and ingenious clues. Just like with The Footprints of Satan, I’m not 100% convinced I’m going to run off and name this a favorite just yet, though I will say I’m much more in favor of this one than the former. Some part of me feels like despite my disposition towards impossible crimes, Penny is a writer who would thrive outside of the locked-room mystery format. I’ve got The Lucky Policeman laying at my bedside ready to vindicate me or embarrass me in that stance…