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.