Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Dead Body
Ianthe Jerrold is one of the many authors which have been rescued from obscurity by Curtis Evans and on the blog I have worked my way through her other novels, most recently her two standalone novels, Let Him Lie (1940) and There May Be Danger (1948). But earlier last year I also reviewed The Studio Crime (1929), which was Jerrold’s first detective novel, leading to her joining The Detection Club and it also contains her serial sleuth John Christmas. Deadman’s Quarry (1930) is his second and last expedition into the world of crime solving, which is a shame. In this introduction to this novel, Curtis Evans suggests that Jerrold ‘anticipated’ the works of Allingham and Sayers, which came later in the 1930s, which combined the novel of manners with the detective plot. This is an area I am going to define and explore later on in my review, mapping the components of novel of manners genre onto the text.
The story begins with the last day of a group’s cycling holiday, comprising of Dr. Browning and his daughter Nora and son Lion; Charles Price, who has returned from Canada to take up his father’s title and estate; his cousin Felix who is desperately in love with Isabel Donne who is also part of the group. Yet events start to take a turn for the worst when after the group have descended wildly down a hill, two people are missing. The first is Isabel who led the group and the second Charles who was at the back. Isabel reappears, but Charles still remains missing. The following morning he is found dead, at the bottom of a local quarry, shot in the back of the head, with his signet ring missing and bicycle not belonging to him, beside him.
At the inquest things go badly for Felix’s father Morris Price, who now inherits the title after having worked as the estate’s agent for many years. He was in the vicinity of when Charles was last seen, he refuses to tell the full truth of his movements on the day in question, nor will he explain a damning piece of correspondence and it was his revolver which was used to fire the shot. An aggressive and belligerent manner in front of the jury, which gets him described as ‘an interesting relic of the feudal ages,’ seals Morris’ fate, with a guilty verdict being brought against him. However there is at least one man there who believes Morris is innocent, outside of his family, and that is John Christmas, who has been holidaying in the area with his cousin Sydenham Rampson. They make an amusing detective duo, mainly because Rampson has little inclination for the task such as when Christmas asks him ‘what strikes you most about the death…?, to which he replies ‘what strikes me most is that you’re a great deal too much interested in it… I see we shan’t get back to London for weeks.’ Moreover he goes onto say that ‘the part of Watson doesn’t suit me. I’m not in the least interested in crime…’ Rampson is also sceptical of his friend’s talents which he thinks are primarily fuelled by ‘penny dreadfuls’ and he says that he ‘can’t admire… [Christmas’] cold and logical intellect, because… [he doesn’t] think… [he has] got one.’ Though Christmas seems to enjoy this cynicism, suggesting that ‘a little cold-water throwing now and then is much more stimulating’ than admiration. Thankfully for him there are other characters keener to play the role of Watson.
Although the case seems open and shut against Morris, Christmas and his compatriots soon uncover other reasons for people to want Charles dead. He made himself unpopular on his estate by threatening to and actually sacking a number of people for example and I can’t imagine shooting his sister’s dog improved matters either. There is also the long shot that an enemy has followed him from Canada, though Christmas only sees this as ‘a remote possibility… [because] there’s something so peculiarly blameless about Canada.’ But another strand of the investigation also hints at a figure in Morris’ past, a figure who increasingly seems to have strong connections with one of the cycling party. Yet for all these ideas for a lot of the story, the evidence does not seem to be in Christmas’ favour and it seems ever more difficult of proving Morris innocent. A night time prowler though begins the process of turning this around and the closing chapters of the novel are suitably dramatic, peppered with intuitive flashes of inspiration from Christmas, with all the disparate clues involved in the case coming together.
The novel of manners story is defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a:
‘work of fiction that recreates a social world, conveying with finely detailed observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society. The conventions of the society dominate the story, and characters are differentiated by the degree to which they measure up to the uniform standard, or ideal, of behaviour or fall below it’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016).
In the world of Dead Man’s Quarry, the ruling norms are middle to lower- upper class gentry and characters such as Nora and Felix, for example do judge Charles Price by these standards of behaviour and by their expectations for him, now that he is in a new role of lower aristocracy. However, having spent most of his adult life in Canada, he falls short of their idea of good manners and even by other characters is designated as an outsider or ‘interloper.’ It perhaps does not help that he left England all those years ago under a cloud. Moreover, within the main social group of the novel but also in characters outside of this group, there is often a strong work ethic and again I would say characters are judged accordingly if they don’t have this and this issue is particularly dominant in the revelation scene at the end of the novel. In addition, I think that the characters who uphold the standards of their social group the most are the ones that get the best ending. Although I will say that I don’t think the ‘conventions of society dominate’ this novel or undermine the detective fiction plot. Yet I still maintain that the world within this book is ‘highly developed and complex’ and shown in detail and one effect of this is that gender roles and female characters are shown more realistically and less two-dimensionally. For example Nora is in love with Felix but this is unreciprocated as he is more interested in Isabel, yet she avoids the trope of being a maudlin romantic heroine, as she knows love isn’t everything: ‘To a young artist, there is nothing like professional success for putting love in its proper place.’
Moreover, Craig White (n.d.) outlines the various features of the novel of manners genre including ‘courtship, social interaction of leisure class… reading and offering of signs… irony… misconceptions, false identities, blunders… [and] connections’ (White, n.d.). I felt in particular that the ‘reading and offering of signs’ was especially impertinent to the detective plot, as sleuths frequently do this very thing with tangible clues, witness testimonials and facial expressions and in this novel the reading of human behaviour actually saves Christmas’ life. Irony and secret/hidden identities also crop up in Dead Man’s Quarry as well, further binding it to the novel of manners genre.
In addition Harmon and Holman (1996) suggest that ‘the mores of a specific group… become powerful controls over characters. The novel of manners is often, although by no means always satiric’ (Harmon & Holman, 1996: 354). Again this can be found in the novel as in this story there is arguably more than one group, as within the suspects there are subgroups who I think, without giving any spoilers away, are influenced by key overriding emotions or desires. I do not think the novel is necessarily satiric but I do think it pokes fun at the “great detective” figure as typified by Holmes, as shown in the interactions between Rampson and Christmas.
Overall, I felt Jerrold’s narrative style was strong, bringing her story and setting to life. Furthermore, her characterisation is very strong, with even minor characters being personalised and individualised, as opposed to being cardboard cut outs and can even be amusing such as a footman who has a counterintuitive approach to ethical conundrums and there is also Lion who is a funny 15 year old, who is old before his time in his fastidiousness for having things just so. Jerrold’s characterisation is also interesting for the way it presents a wide range of different female personalities which cannot easily be categorised into stereotyped groups and through this, the theme of the anti-heroine becomes pertinent. I think the solution is a good one, being quite ironic and is prepared, for but is not one I would have arrived at by myself.
Anon. (2016). Novel of Manners. Available: http://www.britannica.com/art/novel-of-manners. Last accessed 05/02/2016. Last accessed 05/02/2016.
Harmon, W. and C. Hugh Holman (1996). A Handbook to Literature. 7th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
White, C. (n.d.). Novel of Manners. Available: http://coursesite.uhcl.edu/HSH/Whitec/terms/N/NovelOfManners.htm. Last accessed 05/02/2016.