Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Penguin no. 337: Jumping Jenny
by Anthony Berkeley

     "Yes, but it's so easy to think of a feasible explanation of a fact, without knowing in the least whether it's the right one, and without probably realising how many other feasible explanations of the same fact there may be. That was the trouble with the old-fashioned detective-story," said Roger, somewhat didactically. "One deduction only was drawn from each fact, and it was invariably the right deduction. The Great Detectives of the past certainly had luck. In real life one can draw a hundred plausible deductions from one fact, and they're all equally wrong. However, we've no time to bother with that now."

Roger Sheringham had known Ena Stratton for only a single evening, but even a passing acquaintance of this short a duration was sufficient to induce an antipathy so strong that he feels no sorrow when she is later found dead; and he is not alone in this, for it is evident that no character in this story feels any inclination to mourn her premature death.

They had met at an intimate party given notionally in his honour and themed with a nod to his status as the 'Great Detective', with every guest encouraged to come dressed either as a murderer, a murderess, or a victim of some renown. Sheringham's efforts had been uninspired: he had donned a dinner jacket and passed himself off as George Joseph Smith; Ena had come as Mary Pearcey and spent her final evening clad in a charwoman's black dress.

And in keeping with the party's gruesome theme, the host had built a temporary gallows on the roof and adorned it with three hanging corpses constructed from straw and surplus clothing: two jumping jacks and a jumping jenny. These gallows turn out to be the means of Ena's demise: she becomes a replacement for one of the suspended figures during the night, and dressed in black she remains undetected and unrescued until strangled to death by the rope noose in the early hours of the morning.

Ena Stratton seemed to be a woman ahead of her time, with many of the personality traits which Sheringham found so appalling, and which had her contemporaries believing her to be unbalanced, fairly commonplace now. She wanted to be noticed and to create an impression: she flirted with all the men, drank ostentatiously, and her favourite topic of conversation was herself: her unhappiness, her search for fulfillment, her belief that nothing was worthwhile, her suicidal thoughts. But she was also afflicted with a tender ego, so the most insignificant slight would turn her thoughts immediately to retribution. Everyone's sympathy was with her long-suffering husband who was known to be in love with someone else, and who was often inclined to hope that there was some real intent behind his wife's frequently-expressed longing for oblivion.

Ena was certainly self-concerned and disagreeable, but was she deserving of her fate? Sheringham is never troubled by a moment's doubt about it, deciding that her death is all to the good - one less whining woman in the world and a new start in life for an unhappy husband - and it matters little to him whether it was brought about by murder or suicide. What does concern him, though, is the idea that some person present at the party might actually have had the audacity to commit a murder while he, the Great Detective, was on the premises. But once he begins to believe that such an outrage may really have taken place, his principal thought is to protect the putative murderer from being hanged for the crime: he has decided that the law against taking another's life is irrelevant in this case, and that no one should be punished for ridding the world of this shrew.

So Sheringham is shown to be a man who is quick to condemn, unwavering in his judgements, and deeply flawed himself. With one untruth soon begetting another, Sheringham finds himself concocting a series of lies whose only purpose is to mislead the police. Anthony Berkeley's entire story seems crafted as a rather delightful joke at Sheringham's expense, and the reader is let in on the joke almost from the start. Once it is clear that you need have no sympathy for the protagonist, and that he is in fact the target, the story only gets better and better.


  1. Even now, Berkeley is an original writer. How many detective novelists now writing are willing to make a joke of their starring detective? In the modern detective novel, everyone takes things too seriously to do that.

  2. I like this book, it's cleverly written, but it does fall into a common pattern with Berkeley, sort of turning the detective story into a shaggy dog tale. Also "the desirability of ridding the world of a shrew" is a common theme in Berkeley's books. I believe he was twice divorced! I think Berkley put a lot of himself into Sheringham, but still had the critical sense to satirize this horse's arse of a character. Another splendid example of this is found in Top Storey Murder.

  3. As Curt says, Berkeley's books contain a huge amount of material about...Berkeley himself. Sheringham represented the outgoing, brazen side of his character, while Chitterwick, who appears in fewer books, represents the timid side with the inferiority complex. These are very clever stories, often imperfect, but Jumping Jenny is admirably original. I also love the opening scenes with that bizarre party, very wittily described.



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