Jumping Jenny (1933) by Anthony Berkeley

Famous murderers and their victims – surely only in a murder mystery novel would that possibly be a theme for a fancy dress party? Anyway, Roger Sheringham, part-time criminologist and full-time a**sh**e, is attending, dividing his time between talking to his companions and analysing them. One of them, Ena Stratton, proves to be a quite horrible individual, an unpleasant person to be around and someone determined to cause as much trouble as possible. To be honest, he isn’t that bothered when she is found hanging from a gibbet that someone built as a party decoration.

What does concern him is the fact that it seems to him that Ena has been murdered by one of his friends and promptly fiddles with the evidence in order to cover for them. Unfortunately this has the effect of convincing some people that someone else is responsible for the crime – namely Roger Sheringham himself…

Book Club time – so you’ll be seeing reviews of this latest release from the British Library Crime Classics all over this corner of the blogosphere. This one was picked because it’s supposed to be one of Anthony Berkeley’s best works (the fourth best according to Cross Examining Crime), but The Wychford Poisoning Case didn’t do the author any favours with us. I’m very curious to see what we all think about this one.

The odds are already stacked against this one for me, as it’s an inverted mystery. I’m generally not a fan of these, the few that I’ve liked have basically ended up not really being inverted mysteries. This one is not a typical inverted mystery, but it’s also not a mystery either.

Most inverted mysteries that I’ve read have concentrated on the criminal trying to elude the law, the law trying to catch the criminal or both. This one doesn’t really care about the killer – we spend very little time with them after the crime, only when their paths cross with Sheringham. Instead we follow Sheringham around as he tries to convince everyone (in particular the law) that the murder was suicide. Basically, he decides that Ena deserved to die (a very popular opinion) and doesn’t want anyone punished for it.

It’s this central idea that I have issue with, both with regards the plot and morally. I know Sheringham is supposed to be a flawed detective, but here he is a flawed human being and not one that I particularly want to spend time with. This is a deliberate choice from Berkeley, I know, but it does make the book somewhat difficult to like. There are other problems – I never really grasped the motive (apart from someone should kill the nasty woman) and the final chapter, well, just came out of nowhere.

The shenanigans as to how Roger manages to wiggle out of everything without sending the wrong person to the gallows are cleverly plotted and I know that a lot of people do rate this one highly. But there are too many things about this one that just didn’t work for me.

4 comments

  1. Oh, Doctor, Doctor . . . this one was hilarious! I could quote from it all day (and I will at Book Club!) More importantly, it’s another example of Berkeley fiddling with the conventions, and I think he does it quite cleverly here. In the end, its relationship to inverted mysteries is . . . tenuous, to say the least. Did I also mention that it’s funny??

    I consider myself a highly moral person as well, and so I would not condone Ena’s murder just because she was so completely awful. But I really don’t think we’re meant to take this as a serious condoning of murder as the solution when a truly terrible party guest threatens to ruin your affair.

    Plus, her murder made me laugh!!

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    • Humour is such a subjective thing. When the lead character is unredeemingly unsympathetic, then I find it hard to find anything that he does is funny.

      The fact that this doesn’t come close to be any sort of mystery doesn’t help. If we want to read something funny that isn’t a mystery, inverted or otherwise, why don’t we just go for Wodehouse next month?

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