The Studio Crime
First published in the UK 1929 by Chapman and Hall
This edition: Dean Street Press, 2015
Source: Review copy from Dean Street Press – thanks!
Dean Street Press are surging forwards with their resurrection of classic crime novels. No sooner had I read their two George Sanders books (the very different Crime on my Hands and Stranger at Home), than news of two Ianthe Jerrolds arrived. And soon E. R. Punshon, but more of that later, I’m sure.
In Curt Evans’ introduction to 1929’s The Studio Crime, it is described as ‘a jewel of Golden Age detective fiction’, so I jumped into my review copy without delay.
An evening soirée in the St John’s Wood studio of cartoonist Laurence Newtree is disturbed by a strange sound from upstairs. Upon investigation, Gordon Frew, the occupant of the upstairs studio, is found murdered.
The back window was wide open and the room was full of thin fog. The rich, gorgeous colours of the old rugs that hung upon the walls seemed to swim and melt together in it. A great bronze Buddha in an alcove facing the door rose out of the fine drift as out of a cloud of incense.
Frew is a dabbler in art, in collecting, and in writing. His flat is a shrine to orientalism, but his erudition and creativity are a thin veneer – he’s basically not quite the ticket. A cursory examination of his studio reveals that he hasn’t even cut open his expensive books of art. His tomboyish girlfriend is graceful but ‘coarse’. And why is he making regular payments to a woman known to the police?
Based on circumstantial evidence, one Dr Mereweather, a well-regarded chap, seems to be the obvious suspect. The police seem likely to arrest him… unless an amateur sleuth can locate the real culprit.
The irresistibly named John Christmas plays the part of amateur sleuth. His light bantering tone and friendly rivalry with his Scotland Yard chum bear comparison with his Golden Age peers, but in a nice variation on the trope, the best part is his friends’ scepticism and unwillingness to subscribe to his great amateur detective lifestyle.
‘I’ll be Watson for the afternoon, but I’m not going to make a habit of it. I’ve got a great deal more work to do…’
‘Do you want me to tell you about this murder?’
‘I do not.’
One interesting point is the age of Serafine Wimpole, the romantic lead – she is past thirty. My general impression reading books from this era is that women might as well forget it if they’re that old. But here Serafine is making chaps tongue-tied and a bit gauche.
The Studio Crime is neatly plotted, with characters you can warm to, and contains one of the best lines ever seen in an impossible crime story:
‘I should fix the likely and most reasonable number of gentlemen in fezes at two, at the most.’
The Passing Tramp: Her mainstream novels were praised for their narrative charm and appealing characters, qualities that enhance her detective fiction as well. Besides being engagingly written, Jerrold’s detective novels are well-plotted, satisfying the exacting standards of the Detection Club at this time…
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: This is a little cracker. Christmas is an interesting investigator, going by instinct and then finding evidence to fit his theory, or discarding it for a new one. New wrinkles are introduced as the story progresses and the plot is a nicely complex one, containing at least one element that would never be used in modern fiction but fits the feel of this one nicely. The cast of characters is eclectic but never falls too far into caricature and each is given just enough page-time so as to remain fresh in both the reader’s memory and on the list of suspects.