From the triple gallows three figures swung lazily, one woman and two men.
Only a gentle creaking of their ropes sounded in the quiet night. A horn lantern, perched above the triangle of the crosspieces, swayed in the slight wind, causing the three shadows to leap and prance on the ground in a grotesque dance of death, like some macabre travesty of a slow - motion film in silhouette.
'Very nice,' said Roger Sheringham.
'It is rather charming, isn't it?' agreed his host.
[They move indoors and downstairs] In a very large room, a dozen murderers and murderesses were dancing on a parquet floor to a very modern radio-gramophone.
As they stepped into the lighted area, it could be seen that Roger's companion was picturesquely dressed in a black velvet suit and knee breeches; he and his younger brother, David Stratton, represented the Princes in the Tower. Roger himself, clinging, like most of the men present, to the conventional dinner jacket and black tie, had announced that he was Gentleman George Joseph Smith, of Brides-in-the-Bath fame, who did not know that he ought to have come in a white tie and tails.
Roger did not know Ronald Stratton particularly well. Stratton was something of a dilettante: a man in young middle age, comparatively wealthy, who wrote detective stories because it amused him to do so. His detective stories were efficient, imaginative, and full of a rather gruesome humour.
The idea of this party exactly carried out the light-handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well - known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original, but the embellishment of a gallows on the flat roof was, typically so.
commentary: … And here goes with another gruesome murderer’s party: see also recent post on John Dickson Carr’s The Sleeping Sphinx. I ended up reading both these books after seeing a fascinating blogpost from my friend Noah Stewart: he makes very pertinent comments on the strangeness of such a party, and questions whether most people would recognize many murderer or victim costumes or masks.
Kate over at Cross-Examining Crime has also looked at this book, and her views here pretty much match mine (and she wrote about it again in one of her Great Detectives posts – very interesting on the subject of Roger Sheringham). I too found the annoying introductions to characters impossible to decode – I HATE that in any book, where the author first describes characters in terms of their appearance or clothes, then some way further say ‘the man with the blond hair turned out to be John Smith’. Why not just TELL us who people are, why assume we care enough to keep multiple descriptions in our minds, ready to assign them to the cast when you are good and ready?
Rant over. (And there is one important exception – the way Vera Stanhope is introduced in the first of Ann Cleeves’ admirable books featuring her, The Crow Trap, is tremendous.)
Anyway. At least the book features the costume party, which I always enjoy. By the end of the evening a very horrible and unpleasant guest is dead, with just about everyone else having a motive for killing her. The book pushes on through endless alternatives, and many of the characters are anxious to stop legal justice being done: they think it’s just as well she is dead, and the perp must be protected.
Roger Sheringham, a series sleuth of Berkeley’s - he features in The Poisoned Chocolate Case, on the blog here – is gently ribbed in the book. He is over-confident, and gets lots of things wrong. Berkeley is an entertaining writer, and I enjoy reading his books, but the endless new solutions get very wearing – the Poisoned Chocolates is the extreme version of that. And the result of the constant changes of ideas about people and events means that in the end his books are rather heartless, there is no goodness or real life in them. And the middle section of the book features endless laborious interrogations, we might as well be reading Ngaio Marsh. (I thought of Brad Friedman’s excellent phrase – ‘wallowing in the marshes’)
Apache dancing features at the party – always a great blog favourite, see this entry.
Martin Edwards’ marvellous The Golden Age of Murder is very informative and helpful on Berkeley – he is one of Martin’s key authors in the book – and (like Kate) I wondered if the somewhat unconventional view on marriage and divorce given to various characters actually reflected the author’s own views. Martin discusses the book, and the attitudes to women, on his own blog here.
Jumping Jenny was the original title of the book: Dead Mrs Stratton the US version – I have the Hogarth 1980s reprint, which went with Mrs Stratton even though it is a UK edition.