Friday, July 31, 2015

The Penny Murders: Review

Kate and Henry Theobald represent the 1970s in a long line of husband and wife amateur sleuthing teams, following in the footsteps of of such duos as Nick and Nora Charles, Pam and Jerry North, Pat and Jean Abbott, and Jeff and Haila Troy among others. As usual, Kate is the one who usually finds herself in trouble--quite often of the life-threatening variety. Kate, as an investigative newspaper reporter at least has good reason to stick her nose in other people's business--but not necessarily to such an extent. She has a knack for starting an innocent inquiry and winding up in the middle of murder.

The Penny Murders (1979) starts in just such an innocent fashion. Kate is indulging her husband by attending a coin auction where a single coin (a Charles I Oxford crown, to be exact) can be had for a mere 27,000 pounds. Just previous, a tray of coins sells for 12,000.

Kate tried to feel impressed. Twelve thousand smackers for a tray of old coins. Whew! But all she really felt was drowsy in this stuffy, dusty, sombre brown room. Numismatics was not, she thought, her thing.

But it is Henry's. As an amateur collector, it isn't likely that he'll be able to bid on anything, but he does like to see what's on offer. And he promises Kate that he'll be able to steer her into a good story. Both she and her editor are a bit dubious, but they each feel like humoring Henry. Until the Charles I coin comes up for auction, it looks like humoring her husband is all Kate will get out of it. Then Henry notices that Foskett, a well-known coin man, is bidding for Miles Cabral. Cabral is a reclusive millionaire who is rarely seen in public. If Kate could score an interview with the man she would make a major journalistic coup and the auction provides a perfect occasion to try and meet the man.

Fortunately for Kate, Henry has met Cabral (why hasn't he told her before now? she wonders) and his father, a barrister before him, once acted for the man. Henry manages to wangle an evening invitation to drinks at Cabral's impressive London townhouse --well-known for its fortress-like security set-up. Cabral isn't just mildly interested in rare coins; he had a collection that is the envy of numismatists all over the world and he has an alarm system especially designed for the task. His rivals include an American by the name of Cornelius Ball who seems particularly annoyed at having been out-bid by Cabral.

When Kate and Henry arrive at the townhouse, Cabral's Rolls Royce stands at the curb, lights on, and his garage door is wide open. No one answers the bell and Kate, ever the intrepid investigator, notices that the door is unlocked. She doesn't expect to find Miles Cabral dead in his coin room, an apparent suicide. For you see, even though she and Henry waltzed right in without any trouble--the alarm system was working and the police arrive within about five minutes of the moment when Kate tripped the "perimeter alarm." Since the police cannot find anyone in the house and it's apparent that Cabral was dead well before the alarm brought them to house, Inspector Comfort can't help but believe that the millionaire shot himself.

Kate, her reporter's nose for news all a-twitch, doesn't believe it. There are plenty of people who would have been happy to see Cabral dead--from those who might have wanted his collection, to his ex-wife, to the beautiful but empty-headed woman he conned out of three priceless coins and her wrathful boyfriend, to the mysterious Middle Easterners who keep warning Kate off the story. Kate keeps digging up clues, but the one roadblock she keeps running into (and Henry keeps reminding her of) is that darn alarm system. It was foolproof. Once the perimeter alarm was on, no one could get in or out without a key. One set was in Cabral's pocket, one was in the pocket of his manservant who was unquestionably on a train back to London at the time, and the spare set (reserved for the police and situations such as this) safely kept by a holding company. Will Kate be able to figure it all out before someone kills her story for good?

The Theobald mysteries by Lionel Black (pen name of Dudley Barker who also wrote under the name Anthony Matthews) are light mysteries with a likeable starring couple. This one is the first "locked room" mystery that I've read by Black and while he may not have been John Dickson Carr, he did a good job keeping me mystified until Kate figures it out. I do think she manages that in a fairly off-the-cuff, oh-look-I-bet-it-was-done-that-way sort of manner, but we'll let her have it. The one troublesome bit that keeps this fun, action-driven, mystery from the four-star ranks is how quickly I knew who did it. From the moment we got a really good look at the person, I knew. I had a fair idea of why. I just couldn't figure out how s/he could have done it. It's a shame that Black couldn't have done better at making the other suspects more...well...suspicious. Perhaps it's just me. I took an immediate dislike to X and pictured them as the criminal. I happened to be right. I'd love to know if anyone else reads or has read this and, if so, whether the villain was as glaringly obvious to you. ★★

This counts for the "Locked Room" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.

1 comment:

fredamans said...

It's usually the woman who gets into a pickle. Sounds like a fun mystery though. I like the coin collecting aspect, as I do some of the myself. Great review!