Rupert Penny is another one of those author’s whose work divides opinion. Several people praise his books and express favorable opinions towards his writing as a whole, while others dislike him and have described his books in less than favorable terms. I was originally going to start of my Penny reading journey with Sealed Room Murder (1941), but after I read a recent review of Policeman in Armour , I decided to read it instead, given that its overall reception seemed to be much better than that of SRM’s.
A summation of the plot is as follows: A esteemed judge by the name of Raymond Everett convicts Albert Carew of forgery and sentences him to five years in prison. He receives a threatening letter around this time and eventually brushes it off, as no new ones are sent after several months. However, it is soon discovered that Albert Carew is innocent and he is freed, only for Everett to receive another threatening letter which worries him. A few months after the fact, Sir Raymond Everett is found stabbed in his bedroom, under seemingly impossible circumstances and another victim is found in the form of a crushed snail tracked into the room. More threatening letters are soon found hidden away, and Chief-Inspector Beale of Scotland Yard is called upon in order to solve the twisty case.
I was very surprised by my liking of this book. It’s mostly interviews and timetables and all sorts of things that I usually am bored by. However, this book manages to use all of those trappings while making them investing, having constant theorizing and ratiocination which continuously keeps the puzzle fresh and ever more puzzling. Penny keeps it simple here, having only one victim and a small cast of potential suspects in order to fully flesh out the central crime and the characters actions and motives. Nearly everyone is fully dissected at some point and potential motivations and methods are mulled over chapter after chapter. This does create some boring sections in the middle, but for the most part the book had the vital ability of holding the reader’s interest.
The impossibility itself is gorgeous (though the crime itself isn’t fully impossible in retrospect), with a stunningly simple idea in the center that recalls the best of authors like John Dickson Carr and Paul Halter, with the culprit’s identity actually playing a important role in the crime’s success. The central idea around the letters is also brilliant, with it reminding me of a certain twist in a famous novel I recently reread. The clueing is also very fair, with it all coming together satisfyingly in the end in combination with a very delightful Challenge to the Reader. The culprit’s motivation is a tad bit iffy however, and it doesn’t exactly convince me, but I have to give points to Penny for not going down a much easier path in terms of motive. The culprit along with most of the others is given decent characterization, but this isn’t He Who Whispers and for the most part everyone is defined by a single character trait or attribute. The detectives are delightful on the other hand, and Penny sprinkles plenty of humor into the novel through them, with him making fun of various tropes and ideals from the genre and time period.
The book has several minor flaws, but the biggest is probably a large dose of coincidence near the end. It really seems utterly impossible for such a thing to happen and it stretches belief to a near breaking point. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the book, it just hurts it. It does provide a very fun moment of revelation as a plus and in the end it isn’t too crucial, but it still puts a bad taste in my mouth.
In the end, this isn’t a classic (though the impossibility is), but it isn’t a train wreck. It’s an above average book and it deserves the praise it garners, and while it probably isn’t the best Penny, it certainly is a great way to get someone into reading him. A 4.5/5 from me with more reviews of his novels coming soon!