Saturday, October 20, 2012

Double Shock


"You can fix something that's broken, but you can't fix something that was missing from the beginning"
"Strangulation Romanticist"

And I still remember that sight like it was yesterday. There I was, sitting behind my computer, ready to write the first proper review in weeks. It was nine o' clock. The book in question besides me, I had already made notes about the things I liked, nothing standing between me and a review. And that sight was in fact not yesterday, but this morning (it's afternoon as I am writing this). I haven't written anything between then and now. I am very good at not being productive.

Which also explains why it took me about three weeks to finish Anthoney Berkeley's Jumping Jenny. Not because of the book itself though, certainly not that. But these things just happen. Anyway, Jumping Jenny. A much praised book by Berkeley and I can certainly understand why. Mystery writer and amateur detective Roger Sheringham is at a party where the guests are all dressed up as famous murderers. Amongst the guests is a Mrs Stratton, who is nothing more than a total nuisance to everyone (but her husband is probably the biggest sufferer). So nobody was really sad when they found her dead body hanging from one of the fake gallows erected for the party. Roger is convinced that the victim's husband is the guilty party, but because he believes the world is definitely better off without her, he tries to fix the evidence so it seems like Mrs. Stratton commited suicide.

The joke however is that this novel is (in principle) an inverted mystery and the reader knows what caused the death of Mrs. Stratton. And it is definitely not what Sheringham is thinking. Jumping Jenny is actually a double inverted mystery that manages to play wonderfully with the format: we first see the events that lead up to Mrs. Stratton in classic inverted style. In a normal mystery, we would see a detective arrive at the scene and have him solve the case. The fun we usually derive from such inverted mysteries, like Columbo and Furuhata Ninzaburou, is usually one of two types: usually you will be cheering for the detective, and enjoyment is derived from seeing the detective slowly, but surely closing in on his target. Sometimes you root for the murderer, because the victim was someone who really had it coming to him/her. For both types, the intellectual battles between murderer and detective are usually the highlight of such stories.

The way I read Jumping Jenny however, didn't fit any of these types. I wasn't rooting for the murderer, nor for the detective. I was hoping the detective would fail. Not because I thought the murderer should have gone free: but Roger Sheringham is portrayed as a character you want to see fail. He is the self-concious Amateur Detective: he comes up with grand theories and notices small things no other people would notice. He is the Thinking Machine of the story. It however also places him in a state of mind other detectives occasionally seem to visit too: he thinks he is always right, and that he has the right to judge. In Jumping Jenny, Sheringham is a) convinced that Mr. Stratton is the murderer and b) convinced that he should try to help him, even if it means perjury and having to fix fake evidence.

So here we have the initial murder, told in an inverted style and then an on-going inverted story where Sheringham is commiting the crime of faking evidence and inputting witnesses with fake memories! And it is told in such a way, that the Detective is the Criminal. In the end, I ended up rooting for the Proper Authorities, which is something you don't often do in novels with amateur detectives.

Considering Berkeley wrote early inverted mystery novel Malice Afterthought (as Francis Iles), the way this novel plays with the inverted mystery is wonderfully meta-concious. In a way, you might consider this an anti-mystery, or at least a critique (and loving parody at the same time) of the flawless amateur detective who can act freely from the proper authorities. It works here great (at the expense of Sheringham), and it makes Jumping Jenny a recommended read.

And somewhat off-topic, but I do think that is kinda ridiculous that the Japanese translated version of this novel is actually a lot cheaper (even though translations are relatively expensive) than the current English version in print.


  1. Anthony Berkeley has a few novels to his credit that experimented with the fallible story book detective and inverted plots, but Jumping Jenny, IMHO, was the most successful and satisfying of the lot.

    The plot is as good as Trial and Error and the fallibility of Sheringham better handled than in The Poisoned Chocolate Case. My favorite part is when one of the suspects makes up a dummy case against Sheringham! :)

    It's just a joy to read and completely concur with your review.

  2. If you've got the patience for interactive fiction, I'd strongly recommend Make it Good, which plays a dirty game with detective motivations.

    1. I will take a look when I have time again (which.... isn't any time soon), though I have to admit that I don't much experience with text adventures ^_^'