Saturday, 5 September 2015

Sweet Poison by Rupert Penny


published 1940


Sweet Poison

There were 41 boys, and a stranger observing carelessly might have supposed them all variants of the same boy, because all were dressed alike in green jerseys and brown corduroy shorts. Some were larger than others, and some had conspicuously red or black or flaxen hair; a few wore spectacles, and one had a bandaged eye, the result of contact with a cricket ball; but the main effect was of similarity…

[Later, a visitor arrives:]

Anstey Court seemed a pleasant enough place. Away to the left were tennis courts, and near them a practice-ground, the cricket nets still up and the turf worn at block and bowling-crease alike. It was a blazingly hot day, and the grass seemed brown rather than green.

When he heard from the distance the click of bat and ball, and the sound of discreet clapping, he wished for a moment that he were younger, and playing.


 
observations: Back in February, Chrissie Poulson and I did a list each of books set in schools: I am delighted to say that there were so many great recommendations, from Chrissie and others, that I am still working my way through them. This one came from friend-to-this-blog Noah Stewart, who said
I have a rather scarce one that fits this category to recommend to your attention: Sweet Poison, by Rupert Penny. Not the best-written book I've ever recommended, but an interesting puzzle against the school background.
You can read Noah’s full blogpost on the book here.

Naturally I had to get hold of it, and indeed it was well worth my attention, though partly as an oddity. It is set in one of those UK prep schools between the wars (bearing in mind that a prep school in the UK is a different establishment completely from a US prep school – UK boys’ prep is age 7-13). The kind of schools that – if the fictional establishments were half-way true – make you think ‘what were the parents thinking of?’ It’s not the imagined murders and the violence, it’s that everyone takes it for granted that it is quite normal to send your son to a boarding school at age 7, and that he will live in comfortless surroundings, with strange teachers, and a moral code that forbids him telling anyone if anything goes wrong. But that’s just my sideline complaint.

This one has a marvellous first half: some chocolates have gone missing – those liqeur chocs that scream ‘poison opportunity’ to the experienced murder story reader – along with some cyanide. The headmaster and his sister have a very odd family, and there are two nephews at the school (one popular, one not) who may be in danger. Investigations get under way on the day of the big cricket match.

This was all tremendous stuff which I greatly enjoyed. In my view the book went downhill in the second half, after someone has died: there is a great deal of counting of chocolate bars, and we are told that it is all quite impossible. There were some excellent revelations, and then the solution was produced, not very impressively.

But the book was funny and (mostly) entertaining, and as ever I liked some of the contemporary detail. The school fees are a 165 guineas a year, while a master gets paid £180 a year. My new favourite insult (after the recent ‘narking female busy’) is ‘you chocolate-stuffing shrew’.

And although the book takes place in a complete and timeless Planet Nowhere for most of its length, there are two very enjoyable political comments on a single page:
Winkworth translated Il n’y a que le premier pas qui coute as ‘It is only the Prime Minister not (anyone) who matters’, which Miss Charlotte said was quite the most sensible remark she had ever known a boy to make.
And then:
The state of Europe is of less importance than the state of Smith minor’s locker or exercise book, the Polish Corridor insignificant when compared with that which runs from Dormitory A to the fire-escape, and in which someone contrived to leave a blob of cold porridge.
I should stress again that Noah’s article on the book is well worth reading: I love the way he describes Penny’s books as having
a certain indefinable quality of — loopiness. … a certain bizarre je ne sais quoi.
He has my gratitude for introducing me to this one.

The picture shows schoolboy cricketers in Australia, from the National Library of Australia. I used a picture from the same series for The Detective’s Daughter, here, which also has a prep school interlude. And for a more cheerful look at prep school boys, see Jennings and Darbishire.














14 comments:

  1. Moira, there was a time when I was quite crazy about cricket — having played the game in my youth and watched it on television later. Then, more than a decade ago, I lost all interest when a betting and rigging scandal involing Indian and other cricketers broke out. It brought the game into disrepute. Since then I have steered clear of it. As you know, crikcet is a religion in India. I hope the game is not central to this story for it might just wane my interest. I might read it, though, because you enjoyed it.

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    1. I know you take your cricket very seriously in India. It is a big feature of this book, though not, when I think about it, very important to the plot. But the boys, masters, fathers and visitors all take it very seriously.

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  2. As I read your post, Moira, I got the feeling I'd read this novel at some point. It rang a faint bell.... Must go back through my memory and see. At any rate, I've often wondered about those 'boarding school' stories where children are in those cheerless environments beginning at age 7. I don't know how often it happened in real life, but it certainly takes place a lot in fiction...

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    1. I do love my school settings, but I also hate the thought of those poor little mites being sent off at a young age. I bet you'll find you read it some time Margot - your knowledge of crime books is so encyclopaedic that even one as obscure as this one will have passed through the Kinberg Confessions System...

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  3. Just the other day I saw an advert for a boarding prep school, so people are still sending their children away at seven (though not as much as they used to). Hard to credit, isn't it? Even so, I think I'd enjoy this. There is something about a school mystery . . .

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    1. Really, they still exist? That quite shocks me. As I said to Margot above, the whole thing conflicts me: and I know both of you are as bad as me for liking an academic setting...

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  4. Thank you, blogfriend Moira! Rupert Penny's work is so scarce, and such an acquired taste, that I'm always happy to see his writing reach a wider audience. It does take a special kind of reader to enjoy a book for the loopiness of the author himself, rather than his plots or characters, but I suppose that's why he's scarce. And I'm just betting he went to a school like this himself!

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    1. Oh yes, I bet you're right about his past. And I would certainly look out for any more books by him - though you tell me they are very rare and hard to get hold of....

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    1. Noah says old copies of this one are valuable - it makes me think, perhaps you have something in the tubs that's worth a bob or two....

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  6. I think I've read this one. It really rings a lot of bells. Sounds VERY familar. If I do, I've probably got the book somewhere.....

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    1. Well you might be lucky then - maybe your copy is a valuable one....

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  7. I only checked ABEbooks.com but almost all of Rupert Penny's books there are very expensive, and this one definitely. Looks like I would be more likely to find it here at the book sale than be able to afford it online. Although you never know. Once I wanted a paperback book that was $100 online and my husband found a copy at a book store for $4.00.

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    1. I think there's a couple of commenters above checking their shelves in case they've got a fancy expensive copy! I never buy expensive editions of books, but I do sometimes wonder if there's something on my shelves that is rare and valuable, bought as a bargain....

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