Source: Review Copy
Earlier this year I reviewed the first of a pair of novels Jerrold wrote, called The Studio Crime (1929), featuring her amateur, slightly larger than life detective, John Christmas. I thoroughly enjoyed this and it won my August Book of the Month. Let Him Lie (1940), written over a decade later though was actually published under another name that of Geraldine Bridgman. This time there is no outlandish amateur sleuth, but instead a young woman who happens to be on the scene and intentionally and unintentionally finds out information which solves the case. However, in no way does she see herself as playing detective and the advantage of her role in the story is that her part comes across as very natural and I think out of the characters in the novel she is the ideal one to guide the reader through the tale. This change of main character is suggested by Curtis Evans in the introduction as an attempt for more realism. Although die hard Golden Age fans do not need to worry as the novel comfortably fits within the niche of the country house murder and even includes a map.
But who is this anonymous woman? Her name is Jeanie Halliday and she has newly acquired Yew Tree cottage, though it seems more repairs are needed than was first envisaged. But on the plus side her old school teacher, Agnes Molyneux lives nearby and an advantageous marriage means she resides at Cleedons Manor. However this is not the case and Jeanie comes to regret her hasty decision to move here. Agnes has changed since the school days when they bonded through their bereavements, Jeanie her parents, Agnes her younger sister. She is now aloof, distant and distinctly selfish.
The first death of the book is not that of a human but of a kitten. However, this death is soon overlooked when Agnes husband, Robert is murdered, literally shot out of a tree. What makes this a good mystery is that suspicion is spread widely but plausibly over a range of characters, which begins by the fact so many people were conveniently placed to do the crime. For example there is the mother of Robert’s niece Sarah called Mrs Peel who was wandering in a nearby lane with a revolver and the intention of taking her child back. There was Mr Fone, an amateur enthusiast in the history of Ancient Britain, taking a rest in the gun room in the tower which looks onto the orchard. Added to this he had recently sent a threatening letter to Robert about the latter’s plans to open up Grim’s Grave (an act Fone thinks will unleash a curse). Peter Johnson, Robert’s ex-secretary after having been sacked was also in the surrounding area and even Agnes is unable to give a reasonable alibi. As the book develops other characters equally take their turn as prime suspect in the readers’, Jeanie’s and Superintendent Finister’s mind.
Returning to the title of my post, when reading this book I did feel there was a strong affinity between the character of Jeanie and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, especially in that their investigations intentional or not are fuelled by dialogue and conversation. Both are quick at making connections and are magnets for confidences:
‘Jeanie knew a sudden fear that Miss Dasent was about to repose in her a confidence which they would both probably afterwards regret.’
Furthermore, especially in comparison to the other characters (who demonstrate the petulant and selfish nature of badly behaved children), Jeanie is mature beyond her years, understanding the motivations behind people’s actions and words, almost instinctively. Other characters come to her for reassurance, particularly when they have done something questionable. In addition I liked how she does not accept meekly the bad behaviour or hypocritical actions of the other characters and she often says what she thinks. She does not pander to the hysterical behaviour of others such as Peter:
‘She did not care for melodrama in real life, and Mr. Peter Johnson struck her as unnecessarily histrionic in his behaviour.’
Although Jeanie does not go about doing a proper investigation, the narrative does not lose focus and through her natural everyday activities, Jeanie comes across important information and other characters acting suspiciously such as Sarah and even Agnes, who increasingly becomes the nastiest person in the book as she obsesses over herself and avoids all responsibility for events. I enjoyed the ending of the novel which although slightly predictable was wonderfully executed and exciting to read, with tension and drama levels expertly racked up. The solution to the case is a good one and reminded me of a line from the Miss Marple story Nemesis (1971), ‘Nemesis is long delayed sometimes, but it comes in the end.’ Moreover, although I could work out parts of the solution, the name of the killer completely alluded me until the end, which is the way I like it. The killer is well hidden because I think the parts of the solution which are easy to guess could apply to several characters and therefore does not single any one person out.
Jeanie is a wonderful lead for Let Him Lie and does not become entangled into a romance subplot. Consequently I think her character becomes more developed and rounded and not on the whole being resided to the role of typical fictional heroine. In regards to gender and the role of women I found the discussion Jeanie has with Miss Willis an interesting one. They debate whether it is better to be a married or single woman, with the conclusion being that it is a question of who you want to be dependent on. Yourself or a man? Which is the most risky option? And the female characters in the book all opt for one way or the other, with differing and sometimes deadly results. But the strong characterisation does not just rest with Jeanie and I thought Jerrold’s depiction of an Asian gentleman, Mr Agatos, was sensitively done as he was not stereotypically represented and is linguistically amusing and adept, as evinced at the inquest. In addition, Jerrold’s characters are also great because although they may seem to be from the list of stock characters (and overall wouldn’t be out of place in Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead), in Jerrold’s hands they are able to be more than their types and have surprising angles to them. Therefore this is definitely a book I would recommend.