I was really looking forward to reading this book, having the usual bookaholic thrill of trying a new author, especially a hidden gem from the Golden Age of detection, forgotten until this recent reprint by the Dean Street Press.
And Serafine Wimpole was right, a foggy night is an ideal time for murder, providing camouflage for a killer and the readers with an atmospheric setting harking back to the era of Jack of Ripper. The Studio Crime (1929) takes place in London, St Johns Wood (where Jerrold sisters lived for a time). Lawrence Newtree, a caricaturist is hosting a party in his studio. His guests include the playwright Serafine Wimpole and her aunt Imogen, Simon Mordby, a psychologist, Sir Marion Steen, a financier, Doctor Mereweather and our novel’s amateur detective John Christmas. Another mysterious figure also emerges in this part of the story with both Steen and Mereweather saying they encountered a man wearing a fez on their way to the studio. A strength of the novel is that these guests are not flat or cardboard like, as Jerrold characterises them expertly, which even the early stages of this party reveal with the usual anxieties and awkward moments portrayed realistically. Unsurprisingly for a detective novel, the guests soon start discussing how they would commit a murder, Serafine opting for such a foggy night as this, whilst Christmas decides on an isolated place in daylight, where he can explain his actions to the intended victim. The mystery begins when a noise is heard upstairs from Gordon Frew’s studio, a man renowned for his collection of old artefacts. It seems to be a false alarm when Doctor Mereweather goes up to check, although even the most unobservant reader will note that he is sweating profusely. However 30 minutes later everyone goes to visit Frew; his light is on, but his door is locked. The motion to break down the door is quickly voiced (almost precipitously so) and acted upon. The window of Frew’s studio is open, fog seeping into the room, at his desk, pen in hand, Frew is dead, stabbed in the back.
The police investigation soon gets underway, headed by Inspector Hembrow, who John Christmas has worked in conjunction with before. Beyond the guests at Newtree’s party there are a host of other people involved in the mystery such as Frew’s model, Miss Shirley, Greenway and his son, who both work as valets and even a crossing sweeper. The man in the fez also crops up again, having been seen to visit Frew shortly before his death. The mystery Jerrold sets up is well constructed and developed, with plenty of avenues of investigation for the police and Christmas to follow up, as they uncover more about Frew’s and other characters’ pasts. The reliability of witness identifications, name changes, old flames, past offences and burnt letter fragments are all crucial to the solving of this case. Jerrold creates her plot successfully, meaning that even though you can work out parts of the mystery, explain away the suspicious behaviour of certain characters, which of course the narrative encourages us to focus on, the real murderer is elusive and hidden until the very end.
Interestingly, Jerrold does borrow, reference and pastiche Arthur Conan Doyle, famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes and his investigative helpers, Watson and Lestrade. Like Holmes, John Christmas has a Watson figure in Lawrence Newtree. However, Jerrold has put her own stamp on it, removing the hero worship element, creating a more jocund and sarcastic relationship. Although this doesn’t stop Newtree being dragged from his work whenever Christmas wants him:
‘I am Sherlock Holmes. You are Doctor Watson’
‘I’ll be Watson for this afternoon, but let it be understood that I’m not going to make a habit of it. I’ve got a great deal more work to do than that obliging gentlemen had.’
‘Are you thinking of presenting me with a bijou residence there, or what? Because I’m quite comfortable in Madox Court, thank you, and Primrose Hill doesn’t attract me in the least, in spite of the fact that it’s near the ancestral home of my friend John.’
‘The Zoo’ …
‘This is not the way that Watson speaks to his friend Holmes.’
‘Holmes didn’t take Watson away from a pile of work just to sit on top of a bus and talk like a house agent…’
Moreover, like Doyle does in his Holmes stories, Jerrold also gives tantalising details about past cases Christmas has been involved in with Inspector Hembrow. The Christmas and Hembrow relationship is also similar to Holmes and Lestrades’:
‘John’s arbitrary, amateur and sweeping methods of deduction had amused Hembrow at first, but in the end he had found himself in debt to them; and the friendship persisted… Hembrow had accordingly come to have a certain respect for the abilities of his amateur assistant, although he was never tired of reminding him that to jump to the right conclusion was a very different thing from proving its rightness.’
However, I think Christmas and Hembrow are more cordial towards one another and therefore may be closer to the relationship shown between Lord Peter Wimsey and Inspector Parker. Furthermore, a pastiche is made of Holmes’ trick of making inferences about people based on attire and physique, yet humorously it is done by Inspector Hembrow. The trope of amateur detectives finding significance in insignificant clues is also comically undercut by Christmas and the theme of it being the least likely person is also brought up.
Comic relief is also introduced through the figure of Imogen Wimpole, who is the antithesis of her niece. Whilst Imogen strives to be feminine and youthful looking, Serafine you could say represents the intellectual woman who is prepared to speak her mind. Yet, Serafine does not become a stereotypical character and Jerrold portrays her much more roundly, showing that she has feelings as well, but won’t be dictated to by them, which is depicted in her role later on in the novel. This possibly makes her a much more identifiable and relatable female character, for the modern female reader. Imogen and Serafine’s differences can be seen as a clash of generations, but Imogen’s more patriarchal attitudes are softened by the fact she is portrayed humorously, with the implication being that her ideas should not be taken too seriously.
Rating: 4/5 (Overall, I really enjoyed this book with its engaging characters, funny dialogue and intriguing plot events. The only way it could have been improved was if Christmas’ epiphany at the end of the novel was a little less rushed and a bit more prepared for. However, I am eager to buy the second (and unfortunately last) detective novel written by Ianthe Jerrold, Dead Man’s Quarry (1930).)
P. S. Does anyone know how to pronounce Ianthe?