The Detection Club Project: Helen Simpson – The Prime Minister is Dead

#8: Helen Simpson

Image Credit: Helen de Guerry Simpson by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

Tall and pale, with thick dark wavy hair, Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that a woman could have it all.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

You may recall that when I wrote my post about Clemence Dane a few months ago as part of this series, I noted that I had struggled with the decision as to whether to write a single profile with her and Helen Simpson. The reason for considering doing that is that most of their detective fiction output was the result of collaborating with each other.

Indeed there seems to have been some speculation whether Simpson was actually a full member of the Detection Club in her own right as she is described as an ‘associate member’ in a contemporary list of members. Martin Edwards notes though in his survey of the history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, that she was eminently qualified for membership in her own right and that her interest in the genre outlasted that of her writing partner.

One sign of that is that while Dane only wrote mysteries in collaboration, Simpson did write a mystery novel on her own and contributed to several of the Club’s collaborative works. She also was friendly with Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the leading members of the Detection Club, and was collaborating with her on a history of Lord Peter.

The portrait of Simpson in The Golden Age of Murder is not particularly lengthy but does a good job of giving a sense of her abilities and wide range of interests which included witchcraft and smoking cigars. One of those passions was politics which we will see reflected in the book discussed below…

The Prime Minister is Dead by Helen Simpson

Following the publication of Enter Sir John and Printer’s Devil, Helen Simpson went on to write this novel which was originally published in the UK as Vantage Striker in 1931. As you can see I have opted to use its American title for this post. That partly is to acknowledge the edition that I read but mostly it’s because I think the original title is terrible, conveying little sense of what the book is actually about to those unfamiliar with the term.

The novel is one of those which arguably exists on the edge of the genre. It is a story about a murder, its investigation and the resolution of the case yet that detective process never feels like the focus of the book. Rather I would suggest that the book feels like it is most concerned with exploring the political fallout from an event of the type depicted and working through how the establishment might respond to such a situation.

We begin shortly after the conclusion of a party leadership election in which a new Prime Minister, Mr. Aspinall, has been selected. That person was not regarded as the best or brightest but rather an affable and inoffensive lightweight. The assumption is that the runner-up, the International Secretary Justin Brazier, will resign. Instead he stubbornly holds onto his office while making it quite clear that he does not approve of his new leader. A political crisis seems to be in the offing so Aspinall decides he will try and reach out, arranging a private meeting between them over dinner. Rather than bridging their divide, the evening ends with Aspinall dead from a head injury.

One of the reasons that this story struck me as being on the edge of the genre was that it takes a really long time to get to its death and even once we do, it is several chapters before the manner of that death is ever described to the reader. Instead Simpson places the focus on establishing the professional relationships between the various characters. There are several lengthy sporting sequences – one that takes place in a boxing match, the other tennis – which serve as analogies of sorts to the situation being constructed. Both are solidly described though I felt both went on a little longer than I desired.

Those political relationships are quite interesting however and I appreciated the often witty observations and commentaries Simpson offers on politicians and elective office. It’s by no means razor sharp satire, but Simpson is thoughtful about her topic and does a good job creating credible characters to explore those issues with.

As I suggested earlier, I do feel that there are some issues with the pacing of this story if we are trying to read it as a work of mystery fiction. One of these is that Simpson devotes so much time to setting up her scenario that the murder sequence and investigation feel very short in comparison to the point of being rushed. This strikes me as a shame because when Simpson finally does have those elements in place in the final few chapters of her story, she does use them well to create a very interesting and original conclusion.

Unfortunately though it is rushed and there is little sport to be had in trying to play along with this one. Simpson offers little in the way of credible misdirection, leaving the murderer quite visible and easy to identify from an early point in the story. It perhaps doesn’t help either that some assumptions that may have been outrageous and unthinkable in 1931 would represent our default mindset today, meaning that one reveal is unlikely to surprise quite as it would have done ninety years earlier.

The Prime Minister is Dead may not be a classic work of detective fiction but it does offer some points of interest, particularly for those with an interest in all things Westminster. It also demonstrates that the author was as comfortable creating a story in that setting as they had been in exploring the theatrical world in Enter Sir John.

The Verdict: More interesting for its depiction of Westminster than its rushed and ultimately unsatisfying murder plot.

Further Reading

Martin Edwards wrote about this book under its original UK title Vantage Striker on his blog and also featured the title in his book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

The Detection Club Project: Clemence Dane – Enter Sir John

Image Credit: Clemence Dane by Elliott & Fry © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#5: Clemence Dane

Dane was not primarily a crime writer, but she and Simpson shared a love of the stage, and this led them to co-write a mystery set in the world of the theatre.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

From its creation, the Detection Club was quite a rather exclusive organization. Its membership was selected based on the requirement that they had produced work of ‘admitted merit’ and many of the founding members had produced significant bodies of work prior to entry. That was not the case with the subject of today’s post, Clemence Dane who, though an accomplished novelist and playwright, must have been admitted on the basis of one book: Enter, Sir John – a novel cowritten with Helen Simpson.

I contemplated whether I ought to write about these two authors as a pair. After all, neither was prolific in the genre and most of those works were collaborations. In the end I opted to separate them, not because I have a huge amount to say about Dane but rather because I want something to justify the effort I am making to track down a copy of Vantage Strike, Simpson’s solo effort.

Dane, though a colorful character by most accounts, does not feature much in Edwards’ history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder. We learn about a few of her more celebrated works, particularly her novel Regiment of Women and her plays such as A Bill of Divorcement. The most memorable passage though discusses her habit of making regular but supposedly unintentional blue remarks in conversation.

Dane’s interest in the genre was relatively limited both in scope and duration. She would collaborate on just three novels of which Enter, Sir John is easily the most well known. I suspect that the appeal in writing these three stories did not come from a love of the genre but her taking enjoyment in gently satirizing and commenting upon the theatrical professions. No doubt she would have also taken a great deal of pleasure in the creation and realization of her sleuth, a celebrated actor-manager. That was a world that Dane knew well and the book clearly draws upon her experiences and knowledge of details like how scripts are learned.

Those interested in learning more about Dane may want to check out Curtis Evans’ blog, The Passing Tramp where he discusses this book. It’s definitely worth a look.

Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

Originally published 1928
Sir John Saumaurez #1
Followed by Re-enter Sir John

Enter Sir John begins with a commotion disturbing a pair of theatrical types living in digs they can no longer afford close to the Theater Royal. Noticing the Police knocking at a neighbor’s door, Novello Markham ventures out to investigate and returns with news of murder.

The victim, the stage manager’s wife, was found dead with head injuries caused by a poker. The obvious suspect is Martella Baring, an actress in the company, who had visited her after rehearsals and claims to have no memory of what transpired.

Among those watching her trial is Sir John Saumaurez, the celebrated actor-manager. While the jury and public at large are quick to accept Martella’s guilt, Sir John is unconvinced and decides that he will work to ensure her name is cleared.

I have shared my love of theatrical settings for mysteries in the past so readers will probably not be surprised to learn that this was a large part of the reason I was excited to pick up this book. While this book would not have cracked that list had I read it back then for reasons I’ll come onto in a moment, the idea of a theatrical impressario as a sleuth is a really entertaining one that is handled quite nicely here.

At this point I should probably stress that while the cast of characters is composed of theatrical types, very little of the story happens in the theatre as a location. Rather our focus is on the professional stresses and resentments that grow within a company.

Each member of the company that we encounter feels interesting and distinctive which is a blessing in a story of this type. Other than Sir John himself, I probably enjoyed getting to know Novello and his wife the most, each of whom prove quite colorful characters.

Structurally the book is a little unusual in that it begins in the aftermath of the murder before taking us straight into a trial sequence. This choice helps acquaint us quickly with the facts of the case but it has a more important storytelling purpose: by having our heroine convicted of murder at the start of the book, the pressure grows on our sleuth to make sense of it all.

One of the key points of that trial sequence relates to the idea that our killer may have been acting unaware of their movements, disassociating them from their consequences. I have come across several mystery books that feature considerable discussion of fugue state. It’s an interesting psychological idea though readers should expect it to not feature much in the story.

The choice to begin the novel by following a murder trial to its verdict is however an interesting and perhaps an influential one. For one thing it helps to define the central facts of the case in a relatively consice way, presenting them to us from the start rather than having to go through the discovery process.

Dane and Simpson’s great idea though is to have our sleuth, Sir John, watching the trial as an interested observer. While it can often be difficult to explain why an amateur detective figure, particularly one whose profession is completely unrelated to criminology, might become involved in a case, their setup actually gives him a pretty strong and compelling reason. Sir John has become emotionally involved in the case and wants to prove Martella’s innocence. What’s more, the guilty verdict increases the stakes as if he fails in his efforts she will die!

If this setup sounds familiar it’s because it is very similar to the start of Strong Poison, written by Dorothy L Sayers a couple of years later. In that story Lord Peter Wimsey falls in love with Harriet Vane while she is on trial for murder. While I would not suggest that Sayers was copying Dane and Simpson as she treats that idea in her own way, developing some unique themes and ideas, I do feel that its influence on that work is quite apparent.

Unfortunately I felt Martella proved a far less interesting heroine than Harriet Vane. One reason is that where Harriet can be an assertive person, Martella is far more passive. The authors intend us to sympathize with her from the start as is evident from the jury deliberations where we see that while she is universally perceived to have done the crime, a number of the jury are reluctant to condemn her for it. People want to find a way for her to be innocent, they just can’t get there based on the evidence in front of them.

I think it also helps that Sayers invests more in her love story, allowing it to build more slowly over the course of several books. Her journey here renders her noble but helpless and so while we may want to see justice done, she feels like dimensional than several of the other characters in the book.

The issue I think many readers will have with the book however is not the character of Martella but with an element of the story that reflects and depicts common attitudes of its time. Unfortunately what makes this particularly difficult to write about is that it is introduced quite late and proves quite intrinsic to the solution.

My reading of the passages where it is introduced was that the authors were reflecting a view rather than endorsing and propugating it. I could understand, for instance, why it causes the plot to develop in the way it does. While I can completely understand those who find the way it is written or used though, in the context of this story it seems a little distasteful.

I have read and reviewed a much more modern work which uses a similar idea with far greater success, in large part because it felt more in keeping with the broader themes and ideas discussed in that work. Here the idea is deployed but there’s little sense of empathy for those affected, feeling like it is being used for the purposes of plotting rather than using it to develop characters.

For all the negatives I have shared however, I should stress that I found the book a pretty engaging read and found several of the early chapters to be quite interesting. Perhaps the bigger question though, in the context of this post, would be whether the work feels sufficiently important to justify the authors’ admission to the Detection Club.

The best answer I can come up with is to state my perceptions of the book overall. In my opinion Enter Sir John is often a competent read but it should be noted that it doesn’t reinvent the form or do introduce anything particularly clever with regards its plot. I did however appreciate its use of a theatrical millieu and while Sir John may not be quite as endearing as Wimsey, I would certainly be interested to read how he was used in the sequel.

Second Opinions

I linked to Curtis Evans’ post about the book on The Passing Tramp earlier but I think it merits a second push.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime mentions how much they enjoyed a few of the characters but, like Curtis, notes that some readers may find aspects of the conclusion frustrating.

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

Resorting to Murder
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2015

The idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.

In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.

There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.

As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.

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