"...murder sneaked out and invaded the village, upsetting its routine and disarranging the regularity of its program."- Maureen Sarsfield (Green December Fills the Graveyard a.k.a. Murder at Shots Hall, 1945)
Earlier this year, I reviewed a pair of mystery novels by Ianthe Jerrold, The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930), which were assumed to have been her sole contributions to the genre, but there were two additional novels – published under the pseudonym of "Geraldine Bridgman." However, they differ in a few ways: both are standalones with different lead characters operating in separate branches of the genre.
Let Him Lie (1940) is a genuine, Golden Age detective, but lacks the presence of Jerrold's series characters, John Christmas, and There May Be Danger (1948) is a World War II spy-thriller. You can probably guess which of the two novels is going to be the subject of this review.
A decade separated Dead Man's Quarry from Let Him Lie and Jerrold appeared to have inched away from the "Great Detectives" that dominated the pre-World War II scene, which accounts for the absence of her brilliant series characters, John Christmas. He has been replaced by a former arts student, Jeanie Halliday, who has settled herself "in proud and lonely independence" at Yew Tree Cottage in Gloucestershire.
Halliday differs from Christmas in that she does not "create a theory out of the broad characteristics of the case" and then "test the facts," or simply actively detects, but inconspicuously buzzes around the involved with the case and picks up spores of information along the way – which eventually leads to a nasty murderer. Guess you can compare the method of detection in this mystery with pollination.
Anyhow, the opening of Let Him Lie sets the tone of the book: Halliday takes an interest in the welfare of thirteen-year-old Sarah Molyneux and experiences first hand how "confederacy between the adult and the child has its difficulties," which begins when her "queer, neurotic and unhappy mother," Myfanwy Peel, turns up brandishing a service revolver. Sarah was left in the care of her uncle, Robert Molyneux, after being dragged across "Europe in the course of two more ill-starred marriages and one or two less regular alliances."
Lately, Peel has been nurturing "a maternal sentiment" and demanded her former brother-in-law to return Sarah to her. Even saying to the unwilling child that she would not like the be returned to her mother by force of law and how she would not like her daughter as much as she does now. Well, that makes her an obvious first suspect in the murder that soon followed her arrival.
|Ianthe Jerrold, 1936|
© National Portrait Gallery
Robert Molyneux was busy in his orchard, pruning the branches of an apple tree, when he dropped to the ground, but he did not accidentally slipped and fell to his death – because there was a bullet-hole in the left side of head. Someone had simply shot him out of the apple tree!
There are, however, more people with a motive for murdering the apparent nice and inoffensive Molyneux. A former secretary, Peter Johnson, was fired earlier in the year for stealing, but has returned to the region with an additional motive involving the wife of her former employer. Agnes Molyneux was an old acquaintance of Jeanie, but her marriage has transformed her in a very selfish, unfriendly and money spending woman, which caused many quarrels in the household. The locals have a different ideas about what lays at the heart of the murder: namely the curse of an ancient burial mound, locally known as "Grim's Grave," which he had given permission to excavate and this was especially opposed by Mr. Fone – a local poet and armchair historian obsessed with the men of the Neolithic era and would've "done anything to stop it."
Jeanie moves around these people, inadvertently picking up crumbs of information, which combined with such clues as a dead, snow-white kitten, the directional sound of a gunshot and a broken string of pearls lands her in the obligatory spot of hot water.
In the decade that separated Dead Man's Quarry from Let Him Lie, Jerrold wrote a number of mainstream novels, which had an obvious effect on this book: the writing and characters have matured from the pure game aspect of her late 1920-and early 30s mysteries. It's very reflective of the changes that would sweep across the genre in the coming decades, but retained the structure and necessary ingredients of a proper, classically-styled detective story.
I was actually reminded of the debut novel of another writer with a short-lived career in the field: Murder at Shots Hall (1945) by Maureen Sarsfield, which has a young, artistic (sculptor) woman as the main protagonist confronted with murder at a small English village dominated by a grand old tower. But, more importantly, you have to wonder how the genre had looked if the short-lived careers of such writers as Jerrold and Sarsfield had extended pass the 1940s. Would writers such as Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh still be considered Crime Queens today?
Let Him Lie has a good plot that's populated with convincingly drawn characters and its only short-coming is that it does not reach the same, lofty heights as its predecessor, which some of us consider to be somewhat of a masterpiece. But that's only an issue if you're a spoiled, impudent brat, like yours truly, because the book should be judge as a standalone effort – which was (IMHO) a success.