If there’s one thing that can bring about a Book Club’s downfall, it’s Bad Books. Oh, sure, we could call ourselves Bad Book Club and play hilarious drinking games as we share our favorite Awful Passages, but that’s not what my group is about! And so we’ve been trying a new strategy of keeping our collective eyes open for new releases that just might appeal to enough of our individual interests to make it as our monthly selection. The New Plan worked really well with January’s book, The Odor of Violets, and now it has undone itself with Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley, recently re-issued by the British Library.
I have only read two novels by Berkeley in my lifetime: The Poisoned Chocolates Case I consider to be an utter classic of the genre, while The Wychford Poisoning Case I deem to be an utter bore . . . with spanking. There is no spanking in Jumping Jenny, although at one point one male character says of the victim,”Why doesn’t (her husband) give the woman a sound thrashing? That’s what she needs. A jolly good hiding.” What we have here instead is Berkeley’s next-to-last case for his mystery author-cum-amateur sleuth, Roger Sheringham. The author would soon trade his novelist slippers in for a pair of critic’s loafers, but not before giving us this wonderful mixture of country house inverted murder mystery, black comedy, and meta-fictional critique of the genre.
The premise is that Roger has been invited to a party given by Ronald Stratton, a fellow mystery author, who has invited all his guests to dress up as famous real-life murderers and their victims. Behind their macabre appearance, however, beat the hearts of a nice assortment of upper-class folk worthy of Wodehouse, and Berkeley has a swell time commenting on the mores and marriages of their class:
“Roger decided that almost anything to do with marriage was either comedy or tragedy. It depended whether one was looking at it from the outside or the in.”
The determinedly single Sheringham boggles at the complicated relationships laid out before him. Stratton is divorced from a perfectly nice woman and engaged to another perfectly nice woman named Agatha Lefroy. (The ex-wife is also a guest at the party, accompanied by her perfectly nice fiancé.)
“Mrs. Lefroy seemed to him a woman of ideas, and women of ideas are rare. So, for that matter, are men.”
Agatha is also divorced, and when Roger asks her if she’s ready to get married again, she replies:
“Oh, yes. One mistake doesn’t make a series. Besides, I never think the first marriage ought to count, do you? One’s so busy learning how to be married at all that one can hardly help acquiring a kind of resentment against one’s partner in error. And once resentment has crept in, the thing’s finished. Anyhow, there one is, all nice and trained to the house, the complete article for the next comer.”
As the party sails into the late hours, two things become apparent: first, this book is hilarious, and second, the half dozen or so couples pouring cocktails down their throats and dancing up a storm all despise Ronald Stratton’s sister-in-law Ena. All too often, mystery authors spend a great many pages describing bad acts on the part of the victim and setting up specific motives for their murder. Instead, Berkeley simply introduces us to Ena and lets us discover, along with Roger, what an awful person she is. Words like “egomaniac,” “madwoman,” “exhibitionist,” and “very irritating” follow her throughout the party, and she manages to prove every one of these descriptors correct in amusing fashion. You can almost hear under the dance music the clock ticking toward Ena’s certain demise.
When the murder does occur, it’s suitably jarring and quite funny, coming across almost as an afterthought, and it veers the reader into the territory of an inverted mystery, but it is different from any other such story of its kind that I have read. I was reminded a bit of The Problem of the Wire Cage, published six years later by John Dickson Carr, which devotes most of its page time to following two innocent people around as their attempts to prove each other’s innocence get them deeper and deeper into the legal muck.
The center of the hilarity here is Roger himself, who throughout his spotty career has shown a knack for doing and/or getting things wrong. Here he outdoes himself, and his combination of ingenuity and ineptitude, which threatens to drag both himself and the entire party down a dark legal hole, will endear him to all but the most humorless of readers.
The middle section, where Roger and his reluctant Watson propound theories as to what happened to Ena, reminded this reader of The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Indeed, there’s one moment where Roger proposes yet another deduction over a clue they have gone over a great deal, and when his friend considers this new idea “feasible,” Sheringham wearily replies:
“Yes, but it’s so easy to think of a feasible explanation of a fact, without knowing in the least whether it’s the right one, and without probably realizing how many other feasible explanations of the same fact there may be. That was the trouble with the old-fashioned detective story . . . One deduction only was drawn from each fact, and it was invariably the right deduction. The Great Detectives of the past certainly had luck. In real life one can draw a hundred plausible deductions from one fact, and they’re all equally wrong.”
In the end, the fact that this is not a fair play mystery matters not a jot. Berkeley manages to twist and turn his plot in a joyous manner, even managing a final pull of the rug at the very end, all while tickling our funny bones throughout. You should set aside the time for this one. As for me, I have The Wintringham Mystery on my shelf, and I am about to order Murder in the Basement, another offering through the British Library. Mr. Berkeley, you have redeemed yourself for The Wychford Poisoning Case! You and I will be spending much more time together in the future, of that you can be sure.