In Berkeley, wit, charm and flair warred with demons. He loved to confound people’s expectations. The contradictions of his personality infuriated many of his contemporaries. He was the most vociferous advocate of the need for the detective novel to focus on the motivation for murder rather than mere puzzles. Yet the complexities of his own psychological make-up would baffle the most expert profiler.Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)
When I launched my project to read works by every member of the famed Detection Club I made a conscious decision to start out with writers who were new to me. After all, the whole idea behind this was to take in the breadth of styles and personalities who shaped the development of the detective novel. However I could not go too long without writing about one of the most important figures in the founding of the club – Anthony Berkeley Cox.
Cox was a complicated man as Martin Edwards’ portrait of him in The Golden Age of Murder makes quite clear. There are few writers whose name or, in his case, pseudonym can be used to describe a type of story yet fans of Golden Age detection will often refer to a book as being Ilesian. What we mean when we say that is the book will often have a darkly ironic tone, particularly in terms of its ending that is reminiscent of his works written as Francis Iles, the most famous of which is Malice Aforethought.
The majority of his mystery novels were written as Anthony Berkeley and a number feature his series sleuth, mystery novelist Roger Sheringham. The book I will be discussing in a moment is one of the final published novels in that series.
Sheringham first appeared in The Layton Court Mystery in 1925. Cox had published that novel anonymously and followed it a year later with The Wychford Poisoning Case – a work I described as ‘tremendously frustrating’ when I read it last year. It is clearly intended to be a comical and perhaps argumentative work, being written to make a point about the institution of marriage and the conflation of sexual behavior with a person’s broader moral state.
One characteristic of the Sheringham stories is that he does not conform to the Golden Age model of a heroic detective. Sheringham can be rude and obnoxious, vain and judgmental. He sometimes makes mistakes or decisions to interpret justice in his own way. Edwards quotes Cox saying that he intended Sheringham to be ‘an offensive person’ but notes that there were some significant similarities between the character and his creator.
Certainly in later life Cox seems to have been a divisive and quarrelsome figure within the Club’s membership. One point of particular contention was his claim that he should be allowed to exercise a veto when new members were nominated. While his relationships with some other members may have soured, he remained a strong advocate for innovation and new voices within the genre as a critic.
Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley
Originally published in 1933
Roger Sheringham #9
Preceded by Murder in the Basement
Followed by Panic Party
Also published under the title Dead Mrs. Stratton
At a costume party with the dubious theme of ‘famous murderers and their victims’, the know-it-all amateur criminologist Roger Sheringham is settled in for an evening of beer, small talk and analysing his companions. One guest in particular has caught his attention for her theatrics, and his theory that she might have several enemies among the partygoers proves true when she is found hanging from the ‘decorative’ gallows on the roof terrace.
Noticing a key detail which could implicate a friend in the crime, Sheringham decides to meddle with the scene and unwittingly casts himself into jeopardy as the uncommonly thorough police investigation circles closer and closer to the truth. Tightly paced and cleverly defying the conventions of the classic detective story, this 1933 novel remains a milestone of the inverted mystery subgenre.Blurb and cover from the 2022 British Library Crime Classics reprint
My original plan when I started thinking about Berkeley was that I would write about The Poisoned Chocolates Case, a work of some renown that I have yet to tackle. That would have been a particularly apt fit for this set of posts as it deals with a dining club of notable people, headed by Sheringham, who each try to solve a murder coming up with markedly different solutions. I decided to change course however when I realized I would be reading Jumping Jenny, a recent reprint from The British Library’s Crime Classics range, as it didn’t make sense to read something from the author and not tie it into the project. As it happens though I think this serves to illustrate several aspects of the author’s work and style very nicely.
Jumping Jenny is billed as an example of the inverted mystery – a subgenre of mystery fiction the author had helped popularize a few years prior with Malice Aforethought. While that story focused on following the protagonist as he planned his murder, Jumping Jenny quickly disposes of its victim in its first few chapters. We then follow Roger Sheringham’s efforts not to solve the case but to ensure that none of his fellow guests are held responsible for the victim’s death as he regards the murder as an altruistic one. However he soon finds that his efforts have some unintended consequences as he and others in the party blunder and contradict one another.
As with The Wychford Poisoning Case, Jumping Jenny is intended to be a comical read but as with that other story, how effective you find the results will likely depend on your taste and whether you sympathize with Berkeley’s opinions. To give one example, Sheringham’s efforts to obfuscate the details of a crime scene may be highly amusing if you agree with the notion that the victim was a deserving one but may appall those who think that her theatrical behavior is a reflection of her mental health and that while her antics may be embarrassing, her husband’s inconsiderate behavior is never discussed quite as critically either by Sheringham or in the narration.
I personally fall between those two extremes. I think there are some moments in the story that are very sharp and funny, particularly as we see the characters unwittingly talk themselves into peril, but I do think that the treatment of Ena is often heavy-handed and unsympathetic. As trying as I would find someone like that, particularly in a social context like the costume party thrown here, I do think the notion that her death would be a public service is in rather poor taste.
It should be said that Sheringham’s interpretation is not simply a matter of that character’s judgment as when we witness the moment in which the guilty party chooses murder, they do so not for any personal gain but out of the belief that it would help another. While that is useful in terms of setting this up as an altruistic event, the lack of a strong motive makes the crime seem rather unbelievable. Would someone really put their life and career at risk in that way? Perhaps, but Berkeley didn’t convince me of that here.
Still, it is a delight to see Sheringham flounder so badly at points in this story and make a series of really poor assumptions about how others will act. Sheringham can be, as I alluded to in the preamble to this review, a little vain and unlikeable so it is really satisfying to see him flustered as he is frequently here. Much of the entertainment here is to be aware of how the evidence ought to steer him toward the truth and trying to understand how it will be misinterpreted or applied.
I should also say that I rather enjoyed some aspects of the setup to this story, particularly the details of the costume party to which everyone turned up dressed as famous murderers. It’s a neat, if occasionally confusing, introduction to the characters and while I think this could have been featured even more strongly, I was amused by the notion that several draw attention to that a real murder should have been committed while everyone was playing at murderers.
Structurally the book is interesting too. While Sheringham notices a telltale piece of evidence at the crime scene, he is not attempting to discover the truth. Instead he picks up pieces of genuine information in the course of his attempts to manipulate the evidence and he uses that to formulate theories about who he must be covering up for. It feels rather novel and fits nicely with the book’s irreverent tone.
Jumping Jenny is a relatively short read which is probably just as well as I think the joke threatens to run out of steam as we head towards its final chapters. Here I think the author does a pretty good job of playing with our expectations, throwing in a couple of developments that may catch them by surprise. While many of the details of the case were known to us from the near the start, it is still satisfying to see how the clues are pieced together and to learn some things that we had not been privy to earlier giving us a richer understanding of what happened.
At its best, Jumping Jenny can be witty and quite clever. For instance, I love the depth of the discussion about a piece of evidence Sheringham interacted at the scene and the way Cox dissects what it might have been able to show. I also think that the murder method is quite striking and while the path to get to that moment might be a little convoluted, I felt that the mindset of the victim – if not the person who makes that split second choice to murder her – is credible.
The Verdict: Though I think Jumping Jenny has a few tonal problems, I find it to be a very clever work and far more satisfying than my most recent experience of his work. Its concept and structure are novel and I think the piece is paced well overall and offers a good insight into the author’s work and some of his favorite themes. Worth a look!