Having failed over the course of two years to acquire a copy of Jumping Jenny, I resorted to snagging an affordably priced copy under the alternate title, Dead Mrs Stratton. Either title is suitable. “Jumping Jenny” is the female equivalent of a Jumping Jack, and given the critical role of gallows in the story, serves as a fitting name. “Dead Mrs Stratton” works as well, because, err… there’s a Mrs Stratton who dies.
Mrs Stratton isn’t a particularly likable person, which we quickly learn as the novel opens at a murder-themed party. She hurls accusations and threats at several guests, and takes great pains to constantly be the center of attention. Frustrated that the other revelers have tired of her antics, Mrs Stratton declares that she might commit suicide, and storms off into the night. An hour later, her body is found swinging from the roof top gallows set up as a prop for the party. You can probably guess that she didn’t die at her own hands.
Now, this book isn’t exactly a mystery, as the reader actually knows who committed the crime. In fact, the moment that the crime occurs is quite possibly the highlight of the story, and I defy anyone who claims that they didn’t emit an audible chortle when the deed takes place. And yet, this isn’t quite an inverted mystery either. Although we know the identity of the guilty party, the story never really deals with their plight to avoid being caught. Rather, it focuses entirely on Roger Sheringham.
Ah, Roger Sheringham, Anthony Berkeley’s smug self centered detective. I enjoyed his inner musings so much in Berkeley’s best known work – The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Sheringham isn’t written as your typical detective from the era. He gets things wrong more often than right, which is all the more satisfying given his disposition. Similar to John Dickson Carr’s much maligned Patrick Butler, the fun is in watching Sheringham stumble. And in Dead Mrs Stratton, you get plenty of that.
Roger Sheringham is attending the party and is one of the first to discover the body. Given Mrs Stratton’s threat of suicide, everyone naturally assumes that’s what happened. Sheringham though notices an incongruity at the scene and realizes that Stratton must have been murdered. Reasoning that the world is better off without her, Sheringham discreetly “corrects” the crime scene to assure a suicide verdict. He’s curious though, and decides to discreetly poke around to discover the identity of the murderer.
Sheringham’s blundering investigation leads other characters to suspect murder, and by complete fault of his own, he finds himself the top suspect. The rest of the story involves him trying desperately to pin the crime on other characters. This leads to a number of false theories, as Sheringham attempts to build case after case to explain the crime. However, the fact that you know the identity of the guilty party and how the crime was committed means that you don’t get that typical satisfaction from the false solutions. Instead, you’re completely aware that Sheringham is going down the wrong path.
In that sense, the story feels overly long at times. It’s fun to watch Sheringham scramble to save his neck, and Berkeley provides plenty of the wry observations that I love in his writing, but there’s little for the mystery lover to look forward to. We know the who, the how, and the why, and the story isn’t quite driven in the right direction to provide a strong “how will they get caught?” suspense.
Instead, you could look at Dead Mrs Stratton as challenging some of the core aspects of how mystery novels are conventionally solved. 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.
That’s probably the real strength of Dead Mrs Stratton. As a mystery, you’re robbed of the puzzle and that “aha” moment that we’re all yearning for, although the book does have a good ending. So, it’s a fine read, but not quite what I was hoping for. I did have high expectations though, with my other Berkeley reads being the incredibly strong Trial and Error and The Poisoned Chocolates Case. He’s still an enjoyable writer, and I’ll continue to attempt to track down his frustratingly unavailable catalogue.
Although I was set on getting my hands on a copy of Jumping Jenny, maybe I was fortunate to end up with my 1984 Hogwarth Crime edition of Dead Mrs Stratton. It has some nice extras, including an introduction by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan (authors of The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction). It also features a four page biography of Roger Sheringham, which covers how he came to fame via his success in The Layton Court Mystery and The Wychford Poisoning Case. I’m curious if this is featured in all editions of the novel, as it’s positioned after the table of contents.