Dead Mrs. Stratton by Anthony Berkeley
If in doubt, grab the nearest Golden Age mystery – that’s a mantra that usually works for me, particularly when I’ve been flinging myself through as many books as I did during half term! The mystery in question has a bit of a history – back in the 1980s (as I’ve probably rambled on about before) the Hogarth Press had a bit of a reboot. Originally the name of the publishing venture of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Chatto and Windus revived the name and brought out a number of intriguing books in distinctive purple covers. One strand was Hogarth Crime, and I had a number of these books as well as a very fetching dagger shaped bookmark listing other titles. One of those other titles was “Dead Mrs. Stratton” by Anthony Berkeley, an author I hadn’t read, and I never did get round to getting a copy at the time. However, in the interim I’ve discovered Berkeley and his detective, Roger Sheringham, properly and so when I spotted a copy of “Dead Mrs. Stratton” in a local charity shop I grabbed it – well, some of your interests don’t change over the years, do they?
“Dead Mrs. Stratton” was first published under the title “Jumping Jenny” in 1933, and as it opens Roger Sheringham is attending a rather macabre Murder Party being hosted by his friend Ronald Stratton (a detective novelist…) Hurrah, thinks the reader, a country house setting – and you wouldn’t be far wrong, although this isn’t a big Downton Abbey-style place, just a more modest and quirky one, with a large roof terrace upon which is set a gallows. At present, it has three dummies hanging from it, one female and two males (the Jumping Jenny and Jumping Jacks); however, it doesn’t need a Poirot to see that someone more substantial will end up hanging there.
The party is populated by an interesting collection of relatives and locals; there is Ronald’s ex-wife, her man friend, and Ronald’s new fiance; Ronald’s brother David and his hideous wife Ena; David and Ronald’s sister Celia; some local doctors plus their wives; and a forthright Scottish journalist. The complex relations between this group of people gradually develop as the party and the night goes on; and it seems that the vicious and unpleasant Ena is lining up to be the perfect victim. There is in fact a murder which happens very much on camera, and that’s when things start to get complicated…
I shan’t reveal too much more about the plot because this is such a joy to read that I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Let’s just say that much of the so-called detecting in fact involves efforts to convince the local plod that the victim committed suicide and Sheringham is as inaccurate in his deductions as everyone else. In fact for a substantial part of the story, he’s under suspicion himself and so has to do plenty of sleuthing to try to clear himself. There are twists and turns up till the very end, and I didn’t see the final page’s revelations coming at all. Berkeley can plot and write remarkably well and he’s head and shoulders above some of the writers from the Golden Age whose works have also gone out of fashion.
I’ve headed this post “Amorality…” because when you stand back and look at it, the plot is in fact strikingly *wrong*! Someone is killed, and regardless of their faults, the usual modus operandi is for the Golden Age detective to solve the mystery and thus put the world to rights. The world is certainly put to rights here, but in fact it’s the murder that’s done so, not the solution of it. The victim is described as mad at several points, and the modern me feels just a little uneasy at the fact that it was considered better by Berkeley to kill off a (fictional) mad person rather than have them get some help.
But putting this slight discomfort aside, “Dead Mrs. Stratton” was a cracking read, if a little dark, and I really do like Sheringham as a detective; in fact, I don’t know why his books aren’t more in fashion nowadays because they’re eminently readable and great fun. Fortunately, the British Library Crime Classics imprint is bringing him back to the fore, with his short stories appearing in a couple of collections which I read – and I see that “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” is due out later this year. I’m glad I finally got to read this book after a few decades, and I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Roger Sheringham’s escapades.