I do like a classic detective novel from the British Golden Age. The reigning queens of the genre – Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Josephine Tey – are superb novelists, and highly influential stylists. It would be a fine thing to discover forgotten writers who are as good as they are, but the chances are slight. Quality will out itself, since any novelist who sold well and looks likely to have a continuing or revivified market will find a reprinting publisher.
Dean Street Press, a reprint publisher devoted to cricketing works and forgotten novelists, has republished Ianthe Jerrold’s first two novels, in beautiful retro covers with a eulogistic fanfare of how The Studio Crime (1929) is a ‘classic whodunit’, and Dead Man’s Quarry (1930) is ‘classic’ and ‘influential’. Jerrold was a member of the Detection Club, so her peers clearly saw her quality, and these novels are both properly crafted works of detection with all GA boxes ticked: the upper-class amateur detective, the witty banter, the stodgy policeman, due attention paid to police procedures, the obvious red herrings, the subtly hidden clues, and the suggestion of romantic flutterings between the hero and the girl of the moment. And yet, and yet: these are not great novels. They are certainly good novels: Jerrold was a workmanlike writer, an efficient and deft constructor of plots, and had an ear for strong dialogue, and a sensible approach to the depth of background detail required to keep the plot zipping along. The novels haven’t dated because she kept the dialogue free of slang, and her characters’s concerns are timeless, solid and believable. Yet there is also a lack of detail that ought to be there: one character mentions Coué, but nobody mentions the War. These are not novels I can get wildly enthusiastic about.
The format I read them in is partly to blame, so, ebook lovers, skip to the next paragraph. Dean Street sent me the epub versions, since they, quite reasonably, only have so many paperback copies for reviewers. I bloody loathe reading ebooks, because I spend my days working on screen, and have no desire to keep staring at glowing pixels for relaxation. Ebooks are disruptive, forcing technology’s limitations between me and the words with miserable results. No device, no software, no whizzy app, will be as good as the perfect technology of a book made of paper pages that allow you to read the story in the order you want to, to see its maps at the front, glossary at the back, and the cover, at the same time. To have to rely on battery power to read enrages me. To have to perfect the right kind of finger-swooshing swipe to get to the next page aggravates me when I can’t ‘turn’ over one page without zooming past thirty. The ebook’s print size may be infinitely enlargeable, but that’s the only advantage I can see in these essentially utilitarian devices. Rant over. These novels are both available as paperbacks, so no-one need go through what I did.
The other reason for my limp enthusiasm for these Jerrold novels is that they are not great premier league novels, but rather average novels from much lower down the tables. Dead Man’s Quarry is the better of the two. Its emotional tension and plot about the unwelcome heir reminded me of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar. The splendid country setting recalls Malcolm Saville’s Welsh border cycling adventures. It has solid good writing and very successful plot twists. The Studio Crime, which from its plot about artists and London café society ought to be in the league of Ngaio Marsh’s Artists in Crime, is not as good as that (but it was Jerrold’s first novel, to be fair). The best I can say of The Studio Crime is that it’s as good as a so-so Agatha Christie: efficient, following the rules, but without passion or depth.
At this stage in her career (she wrote romances and other works later in her life) Jerrold was not a novelist, but a teller of detective stories. Her plots are ingenious, but my word, The Studio Crime has so much ingeniosity that the story is swamped. We get sidetracked by the attempt to identity the man in the fez with a squint and gold tooth, and hear almost nothing about the more important women medical students from the 1920s. The detective, John Christmas, is blander than Allingham’s Albert Campion on his first appearance and has the same astonishing access to public and private records which feels implausible because he isn’t also given Campion’s indefinable assurance. The red herrings in this novel don’t smell bad, they just sit there looking at you. Dead Man’s Quarry has much more interesting set-piece confrontations, and characters with more bite and zing. Start with Dead Man’s Quarry, and, if hooked, go on to enjoy The Studio Crime as well.
The Studio Crime (1929), (Dean Street Press, May 2015), ISBN 978 1 910570 29 6 (ebook)/978 1 910570 44 9 (paperback).
Dead Man’s Quarry (1930), (Dean Street Press May 2015), ISBN 978 1 910570 30 2 (ebook)/978 1 910570 45 6 (paperback).
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