Sealed Room Murder (1941) by Rupert Penny

Source: Review Copy (Ramble house)

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Clock/Timepiece

Sealed Room Murder

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.

Rating: 3.5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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13 Responses to Sealed Room Murder (1941) by Rupert Penny

  1. JFW says:

    Thanks for the review; having read only one novel by Rupert Penny (‘Policeman’s Evidence’), I was eager to see what you make of ‘Sealed Room Murder’, which is sitting on my shelf, awaiting to be picked up.

    My suspicion is that you might enjoy ‘Policeman’s Evidence’ more. While its mystery is by no means unconvoluted, the solution didn’t demand many – or any, if I recall correctly – diagrams, and I believe the female characters managed to remain fully clothed throughout.

    I see you have John Dickson Carr’s magnus opus on trial – looks like you have been indulging in plenty of locked room/ impossible murders!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind complicated solutions as long as the narrative style is strong, but that wasn’t the case here. Equally diagrams have their place but I think 9 is a bit excessive especially when accompanied with paragraphs of notes. As with the female characters, if Linda had had corrosive acid thrown at her clothes or was covered in vicious ants or if her clothes prevented her from moving out of the path of a moving vehicle her clothes losses would make sense and be a part of the plot. But in this story it was just unnecessary and pointless, as it is in so many stories and weirdly it never really happens with male characters, as I don’t imagine Penny thought of reversing Linda and Merton’s situations in the cellar. Looking forward to sampling another Carr novel though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Brad says:

    My first Penny – when I get around to it! – will be Policeman’s Evidence, so I may, and I do say MAY, fare better than you did, Kate! And if it makes you feel better, I would LOVE to see more male characters divested of their clothing in these cases! I agree with you that the scales are tipped unfairly! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you have a better Penny experience than I did. I don’t really want to see any characters losing their clothes particularly, but if it is going to happen then there should be a proper reason.

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  3. lesblatt says:

    I had a chance to review this one a few years ago, and I agree with many of your points. I did like it overall, though – in no small part because Penny does a formal challenge to the reader near the end, after all the clues are in, inviting the reader to figure out both the who and the how of it. I did point out, as you did, that the profusion of charts and diagrams didn’t exactly make it realistic – what murderer would go to such extremes? – but I did think it was enjoyable. I did like Inspector Beale’s attitude which was, essentially, that it couldn’t have been an “impossible” crime for the simple reason that it did happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes Beale was a good character, though not as present in the novel as I would have liked and I’m glad it’s not just me who found the sheer number of diagrams a bit much!

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    • JJ says:

      The formal “challenge to the reader” is lovely, and Penny has employed it in all the books of his I’ve read, but my favourite has to be from his first novel, The Talkative Policeman. It’s far too long to repeat here (it goes on for about a page) but it’s so ineffably charming that you can’t help but be won over by it.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. JJ says:

    Thanks for the shout out, I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t take as much away from this as I did.

    As I think I may have said elsewhere, I loved the diagrams. Narrative be damned, they were wonderful. Not that I delight in the excessively technical – I’m with you, it should be possible to at least out into words what’s gone on, it is a book after all – but something about this just warmed up the hole in my chest that used to contain my heart. The unreliability of Douglas Merton, too, played a large part in my enjoyment: I always thought that the charatcers are a little shrill or fierce of sympthetic just because that’s how he chooses to see them, that was somehow reinforced here more than with other first person narratives (it’s been a while since I read it, alas, so I can quote no examples).

    Tony Purdon is the protagonist of the other Penny novels. He is the genius amateur who tags along with Beale in that delightfully GAD way and I think he’s probably in here becasue he was in all the others (being my first, I don’t remember him, but if I’d read it last I would have wondered where he was…). Keeping the fans happy, perhaps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When reading this I could see how you would love a book like this which is so focused on the how of the murder and how your eyes would light up when another diagram appeared – as opposed to me who was thinking ‘oh not another one’. Thanks for explaining the role of Tony as his presence wasn’t particularly explained and for a new reader was a little confusing. Which would you say is your favourite Penny novel?

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      • JJ says:

        I rate Policeman’s Evidence, Policeman’s Holiday and Sealed Room Murder equally – they’re exactly the kinds of books I delight in finding – though they’re all quite different in plot and application, with different aspects that come to the fore.

        If you asked me to pick a favourite…hmm, I’d probably throw a stone at a window and then do a runner when you looked around to see what the noise was.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr | crossexaminingcrime

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