Soren Kierkegaard said that life is to be lived forwards but only understood backwards, and the same is true of my reading Anthony Berkeley Cox. I’m reasonably sure that I’ve read the majority of Cox’s novels, but only in revisiting them — with, admittedly, a firmer grounding in the detective genre’s Golden Age which he explored so rigorously in a staggeringly small number of books — do I appreciate what he was trying to do. Jumping Jenny, a.k.a. Dead Mrs. Stratton (1933), for example, is the inversion of every novel of detection written to that point and a vast majority of those written since, and only in seeing this did I finally understand just how damn good it is.
Your archetypal novel of detection takes a crime, which for the sake of ease we shall assume to be murder, and decides that the commission of said crime is a morally reprehensible act that is sufficient unto itself as motivation for uncovering and punishing its perpetrator. It matters not to such a story whether the victim a sweet lady with nary an enemy in the world or a grasping, avaricious old bastard who is cutting his long-suffering family out of his will for no better reason than spite — rather like with sins and sinners, it is the act, rather than the person upon whom it is committed, that falls under judgement and must therefore be righted. Any suggestion that a murder is investigated purely because the victim was likeable would be as offensive as a detective refusing to investigate because the killer might be a friend of theirs.
Berkeley’s genius — and I do not use the word lightly — in the rendering of Dead Mrs. Stratton comes in the way we see murder committed against a not-really-all-that-horrible person and watch our sleuth go out of his way, jumping over obstacles and through hoops, to ensure that the crime is not solved. Our author-as-puppetmaster goes out of his way to ensure that Ena Stratton isn’t even seen as a person: there’s something almost otherworldly in her self-preoccupation amidst the dullards who surround her, and once she’s shuffled off this mortal coil we’re told that series detective Roger Sheringham “would have been extremely sorry to see a decent person hang for such a worthless excrescence on humanity’s surface”.
These are not laudable sentiments, and it would be easy to claim misogyny in the rendering of Mrs. Stratton were she not such a wonderful collection of contrary motivations and actions — remove Ena Stratton and her obsession with men making love to her (“My God, Phil, why can’t men leave a woman alone?”) as the focus and the book would be significantly weaker. The simple fact that the whole shebang has been cooked up by Berkeley as a joke on the detective story’s fixation with all murders being bad doesn’t excuse the unpleasant aftertaste some readers will find lingering as events play out, but looked upon as an extended punchline the novel is astoundingly brave in its steady, remorseless deconstruction of everything that high-falutin’ fans of the detective plot such as myself hold dear.
Medical evidence is thrown into doubt by the human element required in attaining it, Sheringham’s efforts become concentrated on obfuscating evidence rather than finding the only sane path through the melee that the detective usually seeks — you have to love the point where, on about his fourth iteration of trying to hush things up, he goes to see two of the witnesses “to tell them what they remembered seeing” — and his (largely selfless) actions in trying to cover up the murder repay him by finding him suspected. Hell, given that we know what happened to Ena early on, there’s great fun to be had in watching that very sequence of events be deduced by our sleuth and then dismissed as too unlikely even for fiction as thus cast aside. Come the end, I’m pretty sure that there are at least three different interpretations given to events by the people who were there…and various people go away with different understandings that they each know is the correct one. We couldn’t be further from the ultimately simple crime-and-solution game the genre usually plays if we tried.
It has its flaws — none of the cast beyond Ena compel themselves to the memory (I don’t think that’s deliberate…), the middle section does get a little bogged down in theorising and counter-theorising, and it takes Roger an age to realise the apparently shocking surprise that marks the end of chapter 11 — and some people may be taken aback when they realise how small the focus of this is. But it’s also written with a lightness Berkeley could fail to capture when on one of his exploratory jaunts, wonderfully witty at times…
“And anyhow,” put in Mrs. Chalmers, “Philip couldn’t murder anyone to save his life.” She spoke as if this was an old grievance of hers.
…and intent on marking a sea-change societally (see the simple acceptance of Mrs. Lefroy’s forthcoming divorce and imminent second marriage to Ronald Stratton) along with the fictional moral compass it seems keen to address if not exactly reset.
Two years on from Malice Aforethought (1931), which pressed the reader up against a murderer on the first line and didn’t allow you any distance until the very end, there’s clearly no interest in justifying any of this, Berkeley’s simply in it for the game. And, well, I’ve come to appreciate just how consummate a game-player Anthony Berkeley was in the fields of crime fiction: his multiple solutions, highly fallible recurring sleuth, narrative trickery, and moral ambiguity all exploring different corners of a mind that was driven to ask question of the genre which no-one else even imagined could be asked. Not every game is for everyone — Trivial Pursuit bores me senseless, where Articulate is pure delight — but the more GAD I read and love, the more I find myself sympathising with Anthony Berkeley’s version of the rule-book.
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: I think there are some moments in the story that are very sharp and funny, particularly as we see the characters unwittingly talk themselves into peril, but I do think that the treatment of Ena is often heavy-handed and unsympathetic. As trying as I would find someone like that, particularly in a social context like the costume party thrown here, I do think the notion that her death would be a public service is in rather poor taste.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: Immediately following the murder, I was struck by the thought that it had occurred is such a way that it would be nearly impossible to pin the crime on the guilty party. Yes, there’s the mistake that led to Sheringham suspecting the death wasn’t suicide, but the crime seemed nearly perfect besides that point. The very nature of detective fiction from this era is that a crime has to be solvable, yet as you watch Sheringham repeatedly spin empty solutions from details that aren’t actually evidence, it becomes apparent how fragile these theories are; that in many stories, the evidence fits together merely because that’s what the author decided, and irrelevant details are ignored appropriately.