The county of Radnorshire was glorious after six months in London, the weather was only capricious enough to give variety to the landscape, and a bicycling tour with congenial companions was an excellent way of enjoying both.
From The Studio Crime to Ianthe Jerrold’s second crime novel, 1930’s Dead Man’s Quarry. Her irrepressibly optimistic investigator John Christmas is here drawn in to the murder of a young heir on the Welsh borders. Charles Price has returned from exile in Canada to become the new master of the family home Rhyllan Hall, but looks set to make a hash of it. He has:
‘already shot his sister’s favourite dog, turned the head of one of the housemaids, and sacked old Letbe on the most puerile excuse.’
But now Charles has been found dead at the bottom of an old quarry near Rhyllan.
The remaining Prices – nervy cousin Felix, his obstreperous father Morris (who is the new master of Rhyllan), and defensive sister Blodwen – have few regrets about Charles’s killing but seem disinclined to help the police with their enquiries. Morris in particular refuses to explain some odd behaviour on the day of the crime, and as a result finds himself prime suspect. Christmas, who just happens to be passing, doesn’t buy this for a minute and installs himself at the family home to investigate.
There is something of the Enid Blyton in Dead Man’s Quarry. It opens with a group of young people (and one parent) on a cycling holiday in a polite and ordered countryside, where the consistency of boiled eggs is the main topic of conversation. As events unfold, we meet suspicious locals, mysterious strangers, ginger beer bought at cottages, and that old staple the remote shepherd’s hut. And there is a full supporting cast of rustics (who all add something to the story): a philosophically philandering footman, a poetic shepherd, a grumpy pub landlord and his daughter, obsessed with petty crime:
‘Those eggs was took yesterday evening, while I was busy about the house! And there’s been apples took too! One of the boughs is broke through being dragged down rough.’
As with The Studio Crime, part of the enjoyment is watching Christmas’s friends deflate his detective efforts. His practical cousin Rampson, who does the science bit in The Studio Crime, here helps out with more practical matters, even though:
‘the part of Watson doesn’t suit me. I’m not in the least interested in crime. It’s a very crude and silly kind of human activity. And I can’t admire your cold and logical intellect, because I don’t think you’ve got one.’
Rampson regards his cousin (with affection and concern) as an optimistic, ‘hopelessly romantic, novel-reading’ type of sleuth:
‘You’re inclined to regard everything you hear and can’t easily explain as a clue to this murder.’
Despite his detractors and the best efforts of the Price family, Christmas eventually pulls an eccentric collection of clues together into a satisfactory solution:
‘Yes, the apples in the quarry, and the egg-shells in the orchard, and the red ink in the fountain-pen and the blood on the darning needle, and the iodine at Moseley, and the raincoat on the Forest and the broken revolver in the bedroom. Even young Smiler’s bicycle.’
I have one criticism of the digital edition I read, which is hopefully easily fixed. Is the Prices’ dismissed servant named Letbe or Lethe? Both versions are used almost equally in the text and a quick find and replace will improve the book’s readability.
Quibbles aside, this is a lovely book, and other reviewers clearly feel the same (see below): Dead Man’s Quarry might well rank as this year’s best rediscovery. I wish there were more Christmases to come, but sadly this was Jerrold’s final mystery novel.
Pretty Sinister Books: First and foremost it does what a truly fine detective novel should do—it entertains the reader on all levels. Ianthe Jerrold’s best assets include her lively sense of humor and her refusal to pull cut-out characters from the dusty trunk of expected stereotypes and archetypes usually found in detective novels of this era.
Beneath the Stains of Time: It’s this pure, unadulterated detective work in combination with a humorous, light-hearted tone, well drawn characters and an excellent constructed plot that made Dead Man’s Quarry a pure delight to discover.
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: It’s an utterly charming book and in some ways ahead of its time. Christie had only written ten books at this stage, and her style still hadn’t settled down, and Carr released his first book in the same year as this one. But this book, and The Studio Crime, deserve a space on the shelf right alongside these two masters of the classic mystery.