A review of Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold
Dead Man’s Quarry is Ianthe Jerrold’s second murder mystery, published originally in 1930 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, and the second outing for her amateur sleuth, John Christmas. After the publication of this novel, she gave up on detective fiction to resume writing more conventional novels. It is easy to see why. That is not to say that there is anything in the least disappointing with another polished piece of work which raises the already impressive bar set by her The Studio Crime published a year earlier. It is more a reflection on the fact that the genre’s conventions and limitations constrained her writing talent.
Jerrold is a much-underrated writer, with a penchant for strong and vivid characterisations. She has an eye for detail, for the traits and characteristics that delineate one individual from another. Her characters are vibrant and memorable, and she is interested enough to explore what makes them tick rather than just using them as the media through which the plot evolves. Aligned to a strong narrative style and imaginative plotting this makes for an entertaining and rewarding read.
However, the dictats of a murder mystery are that all points lead to the resolution of the puzzle and this can be frustrating for a writer who demands a broader canvas upon which to practise her art and develop her skills. It can be read as a mild comedy of manners, poking gentle fun at the mores and predilections of the English upper middle class, as well as a tongue in cheek doff of the cap to some of her predecessors in the genre, most notably Conan Doyle.
In wrapping up her convoluted tale, though, she seems to have got bored. The ending is a tad melodramatic, a little unbelievable and takes the reader somewhat by surprise. It removes the shine somewhat from what had gone before. That may seem a little churlish but up until that point the book had been first rate and was streets ahead of much detective fiction that had preceded her or Jerrold’s immediate contemporaries were writing.
Charles Price has returned from Canada after a fifteen years’ absence to take over the estate he has inherited. He has not troubled to ingratiate himself with his relatives and in particular his uncle, Morris Price, who has been running affairs. On a cycling holiday with the Browning family and others Charles goes missing and his body is found at the bottom of a nearby quarry. He has been shot. The gun found nearby belongs to Morris and his intransigent and haughty attitude leads to his arrest.
Christmas is holidaying in the area with his friend, Sydenham Rampson, and takes an interest in the drama that unfolds as the cycling party search for Charles. He decides to stay on to investigate what really happened as he is certain that Morris is innocent. Rampson, who takes on a Watsonish role, is a scientist at heart, preferring the cold scientific analysis of Thorndyke to the intuitive brilliance of Holmes, is bemused by Christmas’ enthusiasm, satisfied that the cold hard facts point undeniably to Morris’ guilt.
Not everything is as it seems, though, and along the way Christmas discovers Morris’ estranged wife, an ingenious deception and a conspiracy which would have seen the estate fall out of the control of the family. Of course, the day is saved, romanticism and faith triumphs over hard facts, but the explanation of what happened on that fateful day and more importantly the motivation behind the events is both startling and surprising.
A great read.