Source: Review Copy (Ramble house)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Clock/Timepiece
This is another author I have been convinced to try due to JJ’s blog, The Invisible Event, and he has reviewed two other books by Rupert Penny: Policeman’s Evidence (1938) and The Talkative Policeman (1936).
Douglas Merton, nephew of Thomas Butt who runs a private detective agency, is the narrator of the Sealed Room Murder (1941). Something which struck me a lot about the opening of the novel was its extensive use of prefiguring and proleptic references which cast doubt over Merton’s detective abilities and also alert us to the murder of Mrs Harriet Steele, a hugely unlikeable woman, who although now is well off and respectable, started off life in a roller skating double act. She calls on Butt as someone within her home is enacting acts of vandalism upon her property. Due to the dictates of her late husband’s will, Harriet is obliged to let her mother in law, Mary Glen and her three sisters in law, Olive, Caroline and Violet, one of which has two grown up children called Henry and Linda, live with her. Alongside them there are two live in servants and Harriet’s brother, George Rice. Equally her in law relatives are also obligated to live at Harriet’s home as if they stay away from the house for more than two months in a year they forfeit any right to Harriet’s deceased husband’s money. This is a will which punishes everyone and it is not surprising that tempers have risen, especially since Harriet makes living at her house as miserable as possible, tipping the sympathy scales more towards the other inmates in the house.
To get to the bottom of the mystery Merton lives in Harriet’s house for a few days and also advises she changes the lock on her bedroom door (with him and her having the only keys) and adds a bolt. During his stay other acts of vandalism and theft occur, extending to other inmates in the house, leading to a tense atmosphere as the characters begin to turn on each other. Merton doesn’t seem to be having much success at proving who is responsible, but as his attentions wander to his romance with Linda, events take a turn for the dramatic one fatal night. Both Linda and Merton end up knocked out, bound and gagged in the cellar (though why she had to lose all her clothes in the process is beyond me and rather annoyed me). Even worse when they are rescued the following day, it seems Harriet has been murdered, stabbed in her bedroom which was locked from the inside. What is even more puzzling is that a number of the other inmates have been drugged and/or trapped into their bedrooms. A missing person seems to suggest an obvious suspect but Merton amongst others is not so sure…
At this point in the novel Merton seems to step aside as Chief Inspector Beale takes the centre stage in solving the case and it seems Merton has a very high opinion of him:
‘…my reason for calling him the hero is that he solved the problem of the sealed room, as he has solved others, by the exercise of intelligence…’
The murder method in the case is a very complex one, which is proved by the fact that there are 9 diagrams involved in the explanation! (Surely this must be some kind of record?) However, although ingenious, the method used to explain the killing is painful as there is little attempt at a narrative at some points and instead the explanation typographically and stylistically comes across as a combination of an instruction manual and text book. This is definitely a novel which focuses on the how as opposed to the who, as the latter is kind of easy to guess from a motivation and psychological point of view; the hard part is figuring out how they did it. Although a positive of this murder method is that I liked how well laid plans don’t always work and that one of the reasons why the case is so tricky to solve is because things didn’t go according to plan.
For me the style of this novel was a combination of Golden Age and hardboiled elements, with the latter dominating the first two thirds, to then be taken over by the former once the murder occurs. The hardboiled elements are present firstly through the fact the narrative is in the first person and that Merton’s dialogue and attitudes come across as reminiscent of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. Moreover, Thomas Butt’s more peripheral role in the story, along with his relationship with his nephew could identify him as a Nero Wolfe figure. Furthermore, the attitudes towards women also gives a slight hardboiled feel to the text, such as a focus on judging female bodies and Linda’s debacle in the cellar is typical of hardboiled fiction where the female detective or heroine often struggle to hold on to her clothes.
In addition, this novel seems to follow the lines of younger beautiful woman being portrayed positively, whilst older and less attractive women being derogated. I also found it interesting that Harriet’s venom was mostly directed at the older women in the house, who are required to do a significant amount of house work, whilst the male inmates avoid these chores and generally get better treated. This discrimination is intriguing as although it is written by a male author, the discrimination itself is perpetuated by female characters, who are endorsing the unfair situation.
Overall, since this is my first book by Rupert Penny novel I can’t say if this is indicative of his work. The slipperiness of the narrative style interested me and the murder method is very clever. I did find it a little odd that Merton relegates himself to the role of Watson in his own story, but my biggest query is over the character of Tony. Tony is a friend of Beale’s who does short hand for him and is allowed to wander around the crime scene. I wasn’t entirely sure what sort of role he was supposed to be playing as his presence is rather minor and not typical say of an amateur sleuth, as he does have an unrelated day job. I wouldn’t say this is a bad read, although the gender politics is rather suspect, but I would say it is not suited to a reader like me. With its use of floor plans, diagrams and challenges to the reader I think this is an ideal book for readers who love to focus on the how of murder investigations.