A Golden Age detective novel to pass the time: ‘Jumping Jenny’ by Anthony Berkeley (1933)

Review by Clare G:

This is a good example of a ‘passes the time’ detective novel from the Golden Age. It is typically knowing and self-referential, having a fictitious crime novelist – Roger Sheringham –  as its main character, and a setting in which the cast attend a themed fancy-dress party, each coming as an infamous murderer. The participants talk glibly about murder and are familiar with issues about motive, opportunity and physical evidence. The cast are all comfortably off, middle-class (doctors, writers – the familiar dramatis personae of the genre). The ‘action’ is limited, with the first part of the book taken up with a blow-by-blow account of a party, in which many of the guests are indiscreet, and have much to be indiscreet about. There is really no development of the story after the death of a deeply unpopular woman, with the rest of the book devoted mainly to the author-detective’s attempts to manipulate witnesses’ memories and so deflect any suspicion that the woman’s death might be the result of foul play rather than suicide. Through all of this, the main character assumes that there is something awry, even as he tries to cover this up to ensure a ‘just’ outcome – no matter if it is not the truth. Meanwhile, the reader believes that s/he knows what really happened, through an incident of which Sheringham remains completely unaware. As a further twist, it turns out that even this secret was not the real explanation of how the woman died.

At points, Sheringham himself seems in jeopardy, and he places himself in uncomfortable moral and legal territory by his attempts to plant false memories and create fictitious scenarios. This is mildly diverting to the reader, and the complicated personal lives of the cast also offer some entertainment in the early stages of the novel. The book is quite stylishly written and well-crafted. But the story lacks any narrative tension, and neither the psychology of the people involved nor the basic puzzle elements of how, when and by whom the ‘crime’ was committed are sufficient to hold the reader’s attention. Ultimately the book’s main point of interest is its ambiguous morality and the compromised position of its central detective. (As so often, the police themselves are a hazy background to the amateur detection, though in this case they are surprisingly on the ball and reluctant to accept the obvious at face value.) The ending offers a twist – but one which comes out of nowhere and seems almost irrelevant, rather than satisfying, as a conclusion to the story. There is little actual detection for the reader to get his/her teeth into, and the book shows just how loosely the label of crime fiction could be applied in the 1930s, to include a divertissement like this which is neither puzzle nor thriller. The book’s several reprints by the time of this edition are presumably testimony to the reputation of its author, rather than the inherent merits of this novel – which is certainly not one of his better efforts!

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