Many moons ago I read Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1941); a reading experience which was not particularly successful. So much so that I have never picked up another book by him and have merely encountered his work vicariously through the reviews of others, especially those by JJ who writes the blog The Invisible Event. JJ is something of a fan of Penny’s work and earlier this year he reviewed this title; with Tanner being one of Penny’s pennames. Cut and Run, according to JJ, is a departure from the stories written as Penny and suffice to say I was intrigued. But will it be enough of a departure to make this the Penny book for me?
Arnold Dane is our narrator, and over the course of 180 odd pages he tells us about ‘the most exciting fortnight of’ his life. Having inherited £50,000 he has been away travelling and has only returned to England 5 weeks previously. Early one morning, homeward bound, Arnold pulls his car over and goes for a walk, to relive his youth. Yet that roadside stop would go on to have far-reaching consequences.
Minutes later he is signalled to stop by another car. A man named Dr Paul is searching for his ward, who has escaped from the asylum he runs. He goes on to ask Arnold for permission to look inside his car, yet at this juncture Arnold hears a whispered plea behind his seat to not do anything of the sort. Naturally he puts his foot to the floor and accelerates away, beginning the first chase sequence of the book.
The whispered plea comes from a woman named Rhonda French. She fears Dr Paul not only poisoned her uncle but is also manufacturing events so she cannot inherit her uncle’s fortune. There are three conditions to her uncle’s will, one of which is that she should not be certified a lunatic before she came of age and obtained her inheritance. If she cannot fulfil this criterion, along with the other two, then Dr Paul receives the lot. So you can naturally see what Dr Paul has been trying to do…
A little legal exploration later and it boils down to Rhonda needing to evade capture for a fortnight. If she can avoid re-capture and therefore avoid being re-certified, then she can gain her inheritance. But, even with Arnold and his friend’s help, can she do it?
I decided to look back at my earlier Penny review, so I can see whether or not today’s read fell foul of similar issues. Surprisingly I think it did not on several counts. First of all there was no excessive ream of floorplans and diagrams to contend with. Sealed Room Murder had too many of those for my liking. I also felt Cut and Run was more positive in its portrayal of women, as in Sealed Room Murder, older women were more denigrated. There is still a bit of a hard-boiled tone to Cut and Run, but not as much, or at least it seemed to fit in with the plot more.
Cut and Run is definitely a cat and mouse thriller, strongly deploying the fugitive on the run trope. In that respect it reminds one of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. However, what distinguishes Buchan’s tale from Tanner’s, is that the fugitive in question still had a mystery to solve whilst dodging their enemies, in the former. Conversely, in Tanner’s story we quickly know why Rhonda and therefore Arnold go on the run and it is merely a question of whether Rhonda can stay free long enough. This lack of something to puzzle over comes out in the repetitive nature of the plot, which JJ also noted. It is odd that their enemies are smart enough to repeatedly catch one or both of them, yet not smart enough to avoid falling for one of the escape plots their prisoners concoct. I guess the brains behind their capture is Dr Paul, whilst those who let them escape once more are merely his subordinates. If it had not been for these less than reliable subordinates, I do not think matters would have fared as well for Arnold and Rhonda who make an awful lot of mistakes.
After a while this toing and froing did become a little boring, as unlike JJ I did not really find much to interest me in the characters and the way they are depicted. The back of the Ramble House edition describes this book as a ‘swift-moving chase story, full of psychological horror and breakneck thrills.’ Whilst the first and third points are substantiated by the story, I do not think the narrative is ‘full of psychological horror.’ It is a text which lacks sufficient depth for that, in my opinion. Perhaps in the hands of Ethel Lina White it might have been so. Maybe also the reader, well this reader at any rate, cannot fully buy into the danger the protagonists are meant to be in.
JJ also mentions in his review that ‘the final confrontation hilariously boils away to nothing,’ which is similar to my own thoughts, except I would remove the word ‘hilariously.’ I found the ending a bit limp.
Despite this rather luke-warm review, I would surprisingly still say this book is an improvement on the other book by Penny that I read. Although an anonymous, more cynically-minded person might say this is because the bar was set rather low to begin with!