Enter Sir John (1928) by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

This is a writing duo I have known of for quite a while (think I came across them first in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder (2015)), but I haven’t been able to procure any of their work (at a reasonable price) until now.

This is mystery with a theatrical milieu, in that the suspects and amateur sleuths arise from such ranks, though the murder itself takes place nearby in lodgings. The story opens with Gordon Druce, manager of a touring company, pounding on the door of Martella Baring lodgings, concerned that his wife, (who was meant to have been having dinner with her), has not yet returned home. This scene is looked upon by Novello and Doucebell Markham, who not only notice the policeman who appears then disappears, but also hear the screams which follow from Baring’s rooms. On entering her rooms Novello has quite the sight. Edna, Gordon’s wife, is dead on the floor and by a dazed and confused Martella is the bloodied poker. The circumstances are further incriminating for Martella as she is known to have had a poor relationship with Edna, who was very unkind to her and her skill as an actress plays against her when it is assumed that Martella’s ability to play villainesses on the stage has been transferred to real life. Thankfully she is known to Sir John Saumarez, the famous actor and owner of the Sheridan Theatre. Taking an interest in her case he comes to the conclusion that she is innocent. Her jury though do not agree and in a month’s time she will be hung for the murder. Determined that this will not happen Saumarez begins his own investigation, enlisting the help of the Markhams and it soon becomes apparent there is more to this crime than is first imagined.

Overall Thoughts

It always intrigues me when stories are written through collaboration and in this case I think both writers create an even and seamless finish, though the opening chapter needs careful reading, as its syntax is a little deceptive. A key strength of this book is that Dane and Simpson have made a very appealing amateur sleuth, who demonstrably enlivens the narrative when he begins his investigation in earnest, giving it a certain sparkle. Although very sure of himself, Saumarez is very likeable, aided by his kind hearted nature and warmth. Mild comedy tends to surround him such as when he encounters criticism of the theatre and of his own acting and when he tries to slum it in Peridu, (where the murder took place), but is less than impressed with the accommodation he has to take. He is definitely keen on challenging misconceptions of acting (as he sees them), which comes up when he decides to investigate the case, imagining the criticisms he might face as an actor turning amateur sleuth. He says that: ‘they look on us […] as mere manikins […] not men who think and feel and are ready if need be to do more than really think and feel, but act’ and he feels as though his critics would respond: ‘act, upon the stage. In real life leave action to your betters.’ Both writers had experience of the theatre which comes through in their depiction of actors and their personalities. I also enjoyed how Saumarez uses a play script (borrowing from Hamlet) to ensnare the killer.

Whilst I would love to go on cataloguing the positives of this book, it does has its downsides. It has many characters I would like to meet in fiction again, (and there are sequels to this story), but I would have preferred a stronger mystery. There are not sufficient clues in my opinion, but the range of suspects is limited, meaning the reader will identify the killer quite easily. Though in the story’s defence the initial crime/puzzle is setup well. The story is saved from being an awful read and remains quite a good one by its writing style and characterisation, which are superb. I think there is one aspect modern readers might have qualms about but I think Dane and Simpson’s handling of it, although not 100% PC, is more nuanced and complex than you might expect.

So yes the mystery element had its issues but it was still an entertaining read and it was pleasing for me to see in this earlier mystery novel, a facet one of the queens of crime would go on to use in the 1930s to full and great effect.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Policeman


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