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: Freeman Wills Crofts – Crime at Guildford

Freeman Wills Crofts by Bassano Ltd, © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Crofts, like Rhodes, understood industry better than most detective novelists, and his descriptions of how businessmen (and they almost always were men) operate is as convincing as any of the period.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Several years ago in anticipation of the first anniversary of starting doing this blog I began to compile some data about the books I had read and reviewed. I was quite surprised to learn that my most read author was not, as I expected, Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr but an author that had been completely unknown to me when I began blogging – Freeman Wills Crofts.

The reason for the surprise was not just a matter of his profile but that my first few experiences of his writing were not overwhelming successes. My first few reviews, Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon, praise aspects of the plotting but were less than complimentary about his series detective, Inspector French. In fact one of the reasons I recommended the latter was because it hardly featured him at all!

What I soon came to appreciate though was Crofts’ ingenuity and that he was one of a handful of writers who were laying the foundations for what would become the modern day police procedural. His plots are often inventive and feature enormous attention to detail both in the planning and detection. I rarely, if ever, come away from a Crofts novel with issues with the mechanics of the crime!

Arguably his flaws as a writer lie in his characters who can feel rather flat and functional, none more so than Inspector French. While other series detectives often suggest a life beyond their job, Inspector French seems to just love details and we rarely get a sense of his recreational time beyond an occasional mention of slippers, newspapers and his love of things mechanical (in the book I will be discussing below he says he has a small metalworking space which feels downright intimate by the author’s usual standards).

Perhaps it is a case of the character reflecting his creator. It was hard to find a good quote about Crofts in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, not because he isn’t mentioned but because he doesn’t seem to have prompted the sorts of strong feelings that a Gorell or Berkeley could do. Instead he comes off as decent, conscientious and hardworking with an appreciation for structure, mechanics and order – all of which is reflected in the works themselves.

While enormously popular in the twenties, Crofts fell out of the public eye in the decades that followed and was saddled with the label of being a ‘humdrum’ writer. I understand the complaint but I cannot agree with it because that term suggests staleness and repetition that I simply don’t see in the author’s work.

What excites me about Crofts and keeps me coming back to him again and again is that he doesn’t just adhere to a formula. Instead his style constantly evolves as he experiments and plays with new ideas. Take for example his handful of inverted mysteries, each of which is written in a completely different style and have distinctly different structures. Similarly you can find examples of traditional detective stories, thrillers, locked room mysteries and even a detective story for children.

Humdrum? Not he.

The Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally published in 1935
Inspector French #13
Preceded by Mystery on Southampton Water
Followed by The Loss of the Jane Vosper
Also known as The Crime at Nornes

A weekend board meeting brings a jewellery firm’s accountant to the managing director’s impressive Guildford home. On the Sunday morning, he is found dead and is soon the subject of a murder inquiry by the local police. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector French is investigating the sensational burglary of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels from the safe of an office in London’s Kingsway. French must determine the connection between the theft and the murder as he embarks on a perilous chase to track down the criminals.

The Crime at Guildford turned out to be a great choice for this project as I think it perfectly illustrates almost every aspect of the author’s writing, both positive and negative. This starts with the choice of setting.

Like many of Crofts’ works, the case is involved with the world of business. In this case, a jewelry firm that has found itself in a precarious financial situation. The book begins with a private meeting between several of the most significant shareholders to coordinate an approach to take on the company’s financial troubles at the next meeting. There are several possibilities suggested. These include declaring bankruptcy and restructuring and issuing new shares but there is also an option to sell a large number of precious stones that the company has acquired over the years. Unable to reach an agreement, the group agree to spend a weekend together at one of their homes and they decide to invite along the company’s accountant to give them more information.

The weekend goes ahead but when the accountant is found dead in a guest bedroom in suspicious circumstances the local police are called in. Meanwhile Inspector French is called to the company when the safe is opened the next day and all the jewels of value are found to be missing. Believing the two cases to be linked, French tries to work out the nature of that connection…

Crofts is convincing in describing the practical workings of a business and does a good job of outlining the situation the company faces. While the shareholders themselves may seem a little stiff and formal, particularly in those early discussions, the concerns they voice are all easy to understand and we quickly gain a good understanding of the broader situation faced by the company and why the murder and the theft of the jewels could spell ruin.

There is also a lot of well-observed detail in the descriptions of the mechanism and business practices related to the company’s safe. The way that information is shared with the reader can sometimes feel a little dry but it is necessary to understand the nature of the problem that Inspector French will have to solve: how could a thief gain access to the safe when it required the use of two keys, both of which must have been with their respective holders attending the gathering. It also helps us to eliminate some possible explanations and focus our attention, perhaps a little artificially, on our smaller group of suspects.

French’s investigation is both slow and careful, as is his handling of those suspects. He isn’t prone to making wild accusations or impulsive decisions – instead he follows the evidence carefully, develops theories, tests them and refines them. It’s not necessarily the most explosive way to tell a story but interest is built by having the case slowly take shape and when movement toward the explanation is finally achieved, it feels truly earned.

The reason it feels earned is that the situation, while initially appearing quite simple, is anything but. Ideas that may make sense of one crime are usually incompatible with the other. The challenge of reconciling these two problems and building a model that will satisfy them both is a huge one and while the reader should prepare for a lot of false starts, the journey as a whole will be a satisfying one.

Those explanations are strikingly clever. Take for instance the question of how the safe was breached. The solution to that problem is highly creative and it certainly would work. I would actually go so far as to suggest that this is a rare instance of a technical solution that still feels as clever today as it must have done when it was written over eighty-five years ago.

Other aspects of the solution similarly impress but what really appeals to me is how logical it all is and how neatly everything seems to fit together. When the final piece to the puzzle is presented and things finally make sense, I felt both a huge sense of satisfaction at the tidiness of that solution and delight that it was predicated on a simple but clever idea that just hadn’t occured to me but is, in retrospect, obvious. That, for me, is the ideal in terms of plotting.

The Verdict: The Crime at Guildford is not the flashiest of reads (perhaps reflected in its rather bland title) but it is ultimately a very satisfying one and very illustrative of Crofts’ style as a writer.

The Detection Club Project: Anthony Berkeley – Jumping Jenny

Anthony Berkeley at Sherborne School in 1911, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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!

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Originally published in 2015.

Detective stories of the Twenties and Thirties have long been stereotyped as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Golden Age of Murder tells for the first time the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars. A gripping real-life detective story, it investigates how Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie and their colleagues in the mysterious Detection Club transformed crime fiction. Their work cast new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets, and their complex and sometimes bizarre private lives.

Crime novelist and current Detection Club President Martin Edwards rewrites the history of crime fiction with unique authority, transforming our understanding of detective stories, and the brilliant but tormented men and women who wrote them.

This is the perfect moment for a cold case review of the Detection Club: to unmask the Golden Age writers and their work, against the backdrop of the extraordinary times in which they lived.

One of the challenges in writing about a book that has been as celebrated as Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is figuring out how to approach it. It strikes me that if you are reading this blog (which you are), you are likely already interested in what is dubbed detective fiction’s Golden Age. It also seems to me quite likely that you may have read this already.

Nor can I say that my opinion of the book will likely stand out from the other opinions that have been offered about it. The work is a very enjoyable and well-researched history of the formation of the Detection Club and the part that its members played in developing the British detective novel in the period between the two world wars.

Odds are then that this may make for a pretty unimaginative review but I feel there is still some value in sharing some thoughts, though I will endeavor to keep them brief. After all, there may be some (like myself) who are late in coming to this work.

Edwards begins his work before the creation of the Detective Club, devoting his first few chapters to exploring the early writing careers of Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and Agatha Christie. These three are some of the most familiar writers of this period but it is necessary to understand the personalities of the figures most instrumental in the group’s creation. Their personalities loom large in the organization’s early years and feature frequently throughout the rest of the book.

After discussing how the Detection Club came to be founded and describing some of its rituals and rules, Edwards expands his focus to feature the many other figures who were its members. Given the number of members it is natural that some are afforded more space than others. Some, such as A. A. Milne and Baroness Orczy, are only mentioned briefly, while others’ careers get more substantial coverage. It seemed clear to me that this reflects their contribution to the development of the detective fiction and I didn’t feel that there were any obvious omissions.

Edwards often groups figures together around a common theme. For example, the fourteenth chapter deals with the impact of World War I on the members, providing biographical notes for Henry Wade, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy and Christopher Bush. It was this material that often proved the most interesting to me as several of the names and the works discussed were unfamiliar to me.

More on that in a moment…

Another source of joy for me were the notes at the end of each chapter. Edwards will quote a sentence he has written and provide additional background. In some cases that means referencing the works he consulted in his research, in others it might mean providing additional reflections on a point beyond the scope of this work. I found these to be very informative and I appreciate that these are used well to provide additional detail that could otherwise slow the work down or distract from the theme of the chapter.

Overall I was impressed by the range of themes Edwards is able to explore in the book and I particularly appreciated the way he would tie developments in the genre to the bigger socio-political events happening at that time. We get to read about how members of the Detection Club responded to the Spanish Civil War, the abdication crisis and the financial turmoil of the 1930s. Some of those stories I had heard before but there was much that was new and fascinating to me. There is also plenty of discussion of the real-life crime cases that fascinated the members and the works that they inspired.

Other than wishing that sometimes there were a few more details about some of those more elusive figures, my only other complaint is a rather minor one. While Edwards usually avoids detailing plots in full, there are a few references to works that I think give a little too much of the books’ solutions or endings away either by direct comment or in comparison. While this is rare and those elements are often referenced to illustrate broader points about the development of the genre or on a theme, do take care and be prepared to skim.

Overall though I had a really good time with The Golden Age of Murder and I felt I came away from it with a stronger understanding of the Detection Club and an interest in its members many of whom I am completely unfamiliar with. That is something I would love to correct and so, as my Twitter followers may be aware, I have decided to embark on an ambitious challenge for myself to read and review at least one work by each of its members.

My intention is that I will be tackling the members roughly in the order of the year of their admission to the club. Often multiple members were admitted in a calendar year and when that’s the case I’ll tackle them in whatever order suits me best. I will try to pick a book I haven’t read that was published prior to their admission though on occasion I will settle for whatever I can afford or easily acquire.

And that brings me to the bit where I want to enlist your help. While I have pretty good ideas of what I might read for Berkeley or Carr, there are plenty of figures whose work I am less familiar with. From time to time I may be asking for recommendations either here or on Twitter and I will appreciate your input. Which starts now.

My intention is to begin this series by reading a work by the Detection Club’s first President, G. K. Chesterton. The reason I am starting with him rather than Sayers or Berkeley is that while I have read a few of his short stories, I am not particularly familiar with his work. So, what G. K. Chesterton novel or short story collection would you recommend? I’d love to hear what you think!

The Verdict: A fascinating exploration of the Detection Club and the role its members played in developing detective fiction in its Golden Age. Highly recommended.