Jumping Jenny was my first time reading a crime classic by Anthony Berkeley, and I was in for a real treat with it! According to Martin Edwards, Berkeley, one of the founding members of the Detection Club formed in 1930, is known for the unconventional novels he wrote featuring Roger Sheringham, a private detective, and Jumping Jenny is a prime example of that. Jumping Jenny is sort of an inverted mystery – we know the identity of the murderer from early on. However, rather than focusing on the police investigation that may or may not catch the perpetrator, the plot makes its readers reflect on crime and morality and question the nature of justice, which fascinated me.
The story, set in the early 1930s, takes us to a murder-victim dress-up party hosted by crime novelist Ronald Stratton in honor of Roger Sheringham. Fully committed to his macabre party theme, Ronald has even set up a scaffold with two hanging straw men and one woman (or Jumping Jacks and Jennies, as they would have been colloquially known). From the beginning of the party, we get an inkling of who among the guests will end up with a noose around her neck. Ena Stratton, the wife of Ronald’s brother David, is hated by all for her numerous faults. She drinks excessively, flirts with David’s friends and spreads ugly gossip. Everyone is tired of Ena’s exhibitionist behavior and provocations, and they pity poor David, who doesn’t have the luxury of divorcing his wife, this being the 1930s. So it didn’t come as a surprise to me when one of the guests ended up killing Ena when the opportunity presented itself, even though I was shocked by the killer’s identity!
What’s different and amusing about Jumping Jenny is what happens in the aftermath of Ena’s murder. The party guests and the police think Ena has committed suicide at first, but looking at the physical evidence, it doesn’t take long for Roger to realize it was murder. However, based on the brief interaction Roger had with Ena at the party, he had to come to dislike her just like the others, so he decides her killer must have had a good reason. Because of this, in an unlikely move for a criminologist, Roger tampers with evidence hoping he’d get the police to believe it was suicide, while he attempts to figure out the murderer – purely as an intellectual exercise! But of course, as the saying goes, one lie leads to another, and it doesn’t take very long for the whole situation to get muddied up to the extent that Roger becomes a suspect in other guests’ eyes!
Jumping Jenny takes a comical turn as Roger tries to wriggle his way out of the jam he has created for himself! But I must say I was shocked by the number of basic mistakes Roger made in his attempts to cover his tracks. This being my first Roger Sheringham, I’m not sure if his character is supposed to be ironic in a supposedly well-known-criminologist-yet-very-fallible kind of way. I have two other Roger Sheringham Cases in my TBR piles (The Poisoned Chocolates Case and Murder In The Basement), so I think I’ll have my answer soon enough! 🙂
All in all, Jumping Jenny was an entertaining read, although I honestly don’t know the answer to the morality question the novel raises – does someone as vile as Ena deserve justice? A few years ago, my answer would have been an unequivocal yes. But if all the people who could help attain this justice would rather lie and risk committing perjury to cover for a killer whose identity is unknown to them, what does it say about the life the victim had led?
Note: Many thanks to British Library Publishing for sending me a review copy of Jumping Jenny.