First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1933; US, Doubleday, 1933, as Dead Mrs. Stratton
A party is being given by Ronald Stratton, and Roger Sheringham is the guest of honour.
Out of compliment to him, a gallows has been erected on the flat roof, and from this three dummy figures hang suspended. During the course of the party Roger is interested to notice the behaviour of Ena Stratton, the wife of his host’s brother. Her relations-in-law obviously dislike her, and so do others.
Before the party is over, Ena Stratton loses her temper and rushes out of the room. It is feared that an accident may have befallen her, and there is a search for her. She is discovered in a most unexpected place: she has, in fact, been substituted for one of the dummy figures on the gallows.
And what is that chair doing there?
Anthony Berkeley, who is one of the founders of the famous English Detection Club, has written some of the best thrillers in the language, including The Silk Stocking Murders, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Murder in the Basement. He has also been accused, with F. Tennyson Jesse, E.M. Delafield, Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, and various other authors, of being concerned in Before the Fact.
The curious affair of Mrs. Stratton is another page from the career of his Mr. Roger Sheringham, whose proclivities in the direction of beer and criminology have given him an international following. It concerns the unfortunate sequence of events which began with one of the most extraordinary of murders, and involves Sheringham, for the first time in his career, on the side against the police. It is, without a doubt, his most delicate and dangerous case, for Roger has never before had his own head in the law’s noose.
Never has Sheringham been so adroit—he had to be under the circumstances. Superintendent Jamieson very nearly had him—until he painstakingly worked out the truth, helped the coroner to a Sheringham-directed verdict, and made one of the finest adventures of the whole Sheringham saga out of the odd circumstances of a murder that ranks with such classic homicides as that in Mr. Douglas’s South Wind.
Nowhere is Roger Sheringham’s fallibility seen to better effect than in this lively and witty tale that rivals Evelyn Waugh for fertility of humour. Mrs. Stratton, a splendidly egomaniacal, megalomaniacal and exhibitionist bitch, is murdered onstage, before the reader’s very eyes. Roger, suspecting from the absence of a chair that the ostensible suicide is in fact murder, covers up the evidence and draws erroneous conclusions, not the least brilliant of which is that by which he exonerates the character the reader knows is the murderer, a stroke of ingenuity rivalled only by the suggestion that Sheringham is the culprit! Throughout, the reader is in the happy position of knowing more than the detective, and so being able to laugh at him—until the end, when he kicks himself good and hard.
Times Literary Supplement (29th June 1933):
We congratulate Mr. Berkeley on one of the cleverest and most provoking detective stories that we have read for a very long time. The ingredients are simple – just a murder and Mr. Berkeley’s familiar novelist-detective, Roger Sheringham – but the use made of them is quite novel. There is no mystery: the murderer, a kindly man, commits his murder in full view of the reader, and then dismisses the matter from his mind as a trifle not worth the trouble of remembrance. Sheringham’s deductions lead him to suspect equally the murderer and an innocent man; on the intrinsic methods of the case he feels that it would be an enormity to hand either over to justice. So he plays at cross purposes with Crane and Jamieson, two very astute and efficient policemen. The inquest confounds all three; for a bit of undeniably true evidence simply cannot be fitted into Sheringham’s fictions or the policemen’s facts. The game is adjudicated a draw; and the reader, secure in his inner knowledge, smiles at the amateur and professional crime-chess players. But just as he sweeps his pieces from the board Mr. Berkeley moves a pawn, and the reader’s eyes open wide. This move or explanation we shall not divulge; suffice it to say that without straining possibility or probability Mr. Berkeley proves that a murderer and an eye-witness and, we are almost tempted to add, a victim – may be entirely mistaken about what each believes that he does and sees. The whole thing is extraordinarily ingenious and diverting.
Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 23rd July 1933):
The greatest peril that besets the detective story is that of over-mechanisation. We have trodden the weary miles so often – the corpse, the constable, the interrogations, the false clues, the infallible sleuth, the criminal’s anxiety to cover his tracks, the slip, the true clue, the deductions, the dramatic exposé, and the revolver shots in the final chapter. Mr. Anthony Berkeley deserves all gratitude for his energetic efforts to escape from the thraldom of formula.
In Jumping Jenny he has kicked over the traces with glee and gusto. No infallible sleuth or cast-iron deductions for him. He has often made it plain to us that his own detective, Mr. Roger Sheringham, is an irritating, conceited jumper to erroneous conclusions, but this time he treats the poor man with downright savagery. Cocksure and officious, Mr. Sheringham rushes in to confound confusion, fakes evidence, makes all the murderer’s mistakes for him, nearly lands himself in gaol, stampedes his friends into unnecessary perjuries, falls into every conceivable fallacy, and exhibits himself in every posture of absurdity. And in order that no detail of these antics may be lost upon us, Mr. Berkeley reveals nine-tenths of the solution at the start. He is an adept at showing how, from a single set of premises, the over-ingenious mind may construct endless theories, all plausible and all wrong, and it is immensely entertaining to watch the unhappy Sheringham light upon the truth, elaborately prove it to be impossible, and then proceed, with enormous self-importance, to demonstrate the convincing truth of what never happened at all.
If you are hard-boiled and disillusioned about detectives, you will find this tale very refreshing. It reminds me in some ways of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and I am not sure that it is not the cleverest thing Mr. Berkeley has done since that very clever book.
The characterisation is lively, though subdued, so as to let the ineffable Mr. Sheringham prance and gambol unpartnered in the spotlight. (Mr. Berkeley should, however, note that it takes more than the interjection “Ach!” and the facetious use of the epithet “wee” to make a Scotsman.) The plot is about a perfectly hateful lady who gets hanged at one of those “murder parties”, and, needless to say, Mr. Berkeley has kept a cunning twist up his sleeve for the last page.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 6th August 1933):
What more appropriate setting for a murder could be found than a costume party in which the participants are dressed to represent famous murderers and their victims, especially when the crowning feature of the decorations is a gallows from which swing three dummy figures? The party is given by Ronald Stratton, and among the guests are his former wife, the woman he intends to marry as soon as she obtains her divorce, his sister, his brother, his brother’s wife, his former wife’s fiancé and several others, including Roger Sheringham. After the party has been going on for several hours, during which time much liquor has been consumed and some family skeletons have been aired, it is discovered that one of the dummies hanging from the gallows has been replaced by the dead body of a woman. Sheringham knows that the woman has not committed suicide, and he thinks he knows who murdered her. Usually Roger Sheringham is on the right side of the law, but in this instance he believes that the cause of justice will best be served by shielding the murderer, and this he proceeds to do, with the result that he himself is suspected by at least one person of having committed the crime. Fortunately, that one person does not happen to be connected with the police, nor does he have any intention of betraying Roger, who is thus enabled to go on with the task of explaining away evidence that seems to point to the person whom he suspects. Just as his explanation seems to be on the point of falling to pieces it receives unexpected support, and Roger’s elaborate structure of false evidence is taken at its face value. This is a highly amusing yarn which treats the reader to more surprises than he has any right to expect.
Sat R of Lit (5th August 1933, 40w):
Excellent… Brilliant exercise in fixing clues, masking murderers and faking alibis with lively British house party as scene.
Spectator (Eimar O’Duffy, 15th September 1933, 120w):
The reader watches from an altitude, as it were, the efforts of the police to hunt down the criminal, and knows the exact significance of every clue that helps, puzzles, or misleads them—an exhilarating change from his usual rôle of bewildered onlooker… And at the end of it all the author still has a surprise up his sleeve.
A corker by one of the best. Roger Sheringham, the author’s agreeable heavy-brained sleuth, stupidly involves himself in protecting the murderer of the host’s dangerously shrewish sister-in-law during a party. The lady’s appropriate hanging takes place before the reader, who knows who did the job. The whole is tightly knit, the dialogue aces, and a surprising and completely plausible twist at the end makes this probably one of the year’s three or four superior crime chronicles.