I was in need of a comfort read today, so I decided I would re-read the first Jane and Dagobert Brown mystery. The synopsis for the Perennial Library edition sums it up as: ‘Jane Hamish and her fiancé Dagobert Brown become a formidable pair of sleuths in this perilous tale of murder set in a London solicitor’s office.’ Technically the death occurs at the victim’s home, though. Nevertheless, the victim is a trying and tiresome client, Blanche Robjohn, and it seems likely that if murder has occurred then it was someone who worked at the firm who did the deed, excepting Jane Hamish of course. Or at least that is how Dagobert Brown sees it, who happens to be her maverick and unpredictable fiancé. He decides to take on the role of amateur sleuth, with Jane as his faithful Watson. Unsurprisingly Dagobert gets more than he bargained for, not least that his Watson is far from simpering and devoted in her recording of the case…
It was interesting returning to this book after many years, not least because I have now read all of the other books and I was keen to remind myself of how it all started. How was the series this set up and was this set-up maintained or changed?
Metafictional humour is one of the aspects introduced in this inaugural Jane and Dagobert Brown mystery, though I feel it is a feature which grows and recedes throughout the series. The earliest books are the most metafictional I would say. Before Blanche even bites the dust, Dagobert is keen for Jane to write a mystery story, crime and detection being his latest hobby, (you could say he is something an intellectual Toad of Toad Hall from Wind in the Willows).
In a way the story opens with a focus on how Jane goes about writing a mystery story, which I liked. She says that:‘For years people have been saying to me, “It must be so interesting to work in a lawyer’s office, you meet so many interesting people; you ought to write a book.” Slowly I have been worn down by this sort of thing…’ She goes on to add that:
‘Actually Dagobert is responsible for the murder angle. Murder at the moment – late November – absorbs him. In between “seeing people” about jobs, he has been reading thrillers – about three a day. I have nursed Dagobert through several such crises before: Gregorian Chant last year, followed by wild flowers and sixteenth-century French poetry […] It has not occurred to Dagobert to write this himself – his style is to conceive great works rather to execute them. He will inspire me, and correct my spelling. In any case his latest hobby is my writing a thriller.’
Even from page 2 of the book, Dagobert’s character and mode of living is immediately clear to see, and throughout this series he rarely strays from the template established in this first book. But given how unconventional and unpredictable he can be, this does not mean he is static and dull as a character.
Given the auto/biographical role Jane holds, it would be easy to place her within the Watson category. Yet I think her fulfilment of this role is not entirely typical. Instead of the detective taking centre stage, Dagobert is often more in the background and a lot of the information we learn comes from Jane instead, which makes sense as she is the one who works at the solicitors. The power play between the two of them is also more nuanced than it can be in other sleuthing couples of the era. Dagobert does tend to do things his own way, driving Jane mad at times, and he get his big reveal at the end. But what makes things different here, is the way Jane writes about it all. I have commented before in another review for this series, that her role as author, gives Jane quite a degree of control and she is quite happy to include Dagobert’s more foolish and less glowing moments. Oh, and when she is annoyed by him, we know about it! Their relationship as a consequence feels more real.
When writing my review for this book, I noticed the quotes included on the back of my copy and I was intrigued by how different the book comes across, depending on who is reviewing the title. For example, the New York Herald Tribune Book Review wrote that this novel:
‘Combines the merit of both the English and American schools in the new mystery. It’s as breezy as the best of the American ones, and has the sophistication and wit of any top-notch Britisher.’
Whilst The New York Times said that it is:
‘An amiable British mystery, with the sleuthing done by two ingratiating amateurs… [who] are honestly concerned with seeing justice done, and the case they are working on is a complexly sordid and unpleasant one well worth solving.’
Which review is correct? Probably, on the whole, the former I think, which hits the nail on the head with its comment on the blending of American and British mystery styles. There is definitely a bit more of an American sharpness to Jane’s humour, and Dagobert confidently fulfils the eccentric amateur sleuth quota. The latter quote gives the book a mean streets tone, which I don’t think we find in the text itself. Although, it’s reference to the case being ‘a complexly sordid and unpleasant one,’ sort ties into the way the book is more comfortable with including relationships between unmarried individuals.
One such couple is our sleuthing duo. They are engaged and on my first read I did not clock this, but Moira at Clothes in Books noted in her review, that Jane and Dagobert have flats, (or as Moira calls them bed-sitting-rooms), in the same building and are in and out of each other’s personal spaces quite comfortably, with Dagobert even giving Jane breakfast in bed one day. The book is remarkably reticent about this arrangement, with there only being one paragraph nearer the end of the book which confirms them occupying the same building. Moira felt there were some inferences that they were sleeping together. I’m not sure either way, but nevertheless this social setup is far more free and easy and has a more modern outlook. You definitely can’t see Tommy and Tuppence Beresford acting this way. Added to which in this book we learn that Dagobert is still waiting for his divorce to come through. With this kind of home life you would think the pair were setting themselves up for blackmail or giving themselves a motive for murdering someone, but in this story there is no awkwardness or any need for the text to exonerate or defend them. All in all, I thought this was quite an unusual feature of the book in comparison to their other fictional contemporaries.
Despite Dagobert’s allergy to a stable work life and his tendency to get immediately chummy with people, I would say he and Jane have a very strong relationship. Jane is naturally unimpressed by him taking beautiful women out to dinner, without telling her. Yet, we soon see how his interest is primarily in the information he can learn from such an encounter and his devotion and commitment to Jane comes out later in the book, such as when she has gone to a pub with a suspect and her work colleague does not give the full address of the pub to Dagobert. An evening ensues of him running around every pub with that name and now that I think about it, the text mentions a lot of hand and arm squeezing. These tender moments are nearly as prolific as Miss Silver’s coughs!
I also felt Ames gave Dagobert quite modern attitudes on gender roles. They crop up in later books too, but in this story he is deeply annoyed by one suspect’s callous attitude towards his ex-lover and at one point says: ‘That is what women are for – to have babies.’ Jane goes on to write that ‘Dagobert struck four matches in a row trying to light his pipe. I admired the way he controlled himself. He doesn’t get angry easily but he has difficulty with himself when he does.’ On another occasion Dagobert tells Jane to: ‘Maintain, if possible, an open mind. Women always argue from their emotions.’ Yet before she has a chance to interrupt him he adds that, ‘So do men. I said it first.’ I would say Dagobert is quite a non-judgemental person and his attitudes towards others don’t tend to pigeonhole them. Perhaps because he sees life as full of possibilities and he himself feels quite unrestricted, that in turn leaves him feeling comfortable with others following suit.
Office life naturally features a lot in this narrative, and this is something Ames gets right too. He conveys a strong sense of social hierarchy, something we don’t really see in the subsequent stories. Then again, after this, Ames has his sleuthing duo set within quite an unorthodox work pattern, and it is this freedom from the 9-5 which probably gives some of the later books a zanier quality, (though not in the same way as Craig Rice’s or Conyth Little’s books). I would also say this book is not as comic or light-hearted as some of the others. It has its funny moments, such as Dagobert’s stint as a gas worker, but there are other parts which are more emotionally complex.
So overall this was a very fun re-read and I heartily agree with The Saturday Review, who said that this book ‘introduc[es] two witty, intelligent and completely delightful sleuths to those who can never get enough British mysteries.’ If you haven’t tried this series before, I would recommend you give it a try.