After that, Helen Simpson published Vantage Striker (1931) (in the US The Prime Minister Is Dead), a sort of political crime thriller, before reuniting with Dane for a final detective novel, titled, appropriately enough, Re-Enter Sir John (1932). After the appearance of that novel, Sir John exited from the fictional stage--aside from an appearance the next year in the joint Detection Club novel Ask a Policeman (1933), in a chapter written by another hand (Gladys Mitchell, as I recollect)--and Dane and Simpson ended their own performance as collaborative crime writers.
|Enter First Author|
Helen Simpson, who published her first novel in 1925, had attained less success than Dane by 1928, but greater renown was to come to her when she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, for her sprawling novel Boomerang (1932).
Simpson's novel Under Capricorn (1937) in 1949 would serve as the basis for an Alfred Hitchcock film, as had Enter Sir John itself, which in 1930 Hitchcock filmed, in what I believe is an unusually faithful adaptation for the director, under the blunt title Murder! The film, one of Hitch's first talkies, stars Herbert Marshall as the actor-manager turned sleuth Sir John Menier (Sir John Saumarez in the novel).
|Enter Second Author|
Martella Baring, another actress from Edna's company, is arrested for the murder, as she was discovered at the scene of the crime with the bloody poker at her feet and is believed to have had a motive for the murder.
Even Martella herself thinks she may have done the gruesome deed, albeit in a state of what the psychiatrists term mental fugue (there's discussion of this psychic malady in the book).
After her trial and conviction, actor-manager Sir John Saumarez (cradle name Jonathan Simmonds), brooding over a discrepancy in the evidence missed by everyone else and impressed by Martella's good looks and fine breeding, decides to investigate the case for himself, contending that actors can make good sleuths by applying "the technique of our art to the problems of daily life."
With the help of the wonderfully-named Novello Markham and Doucebell Dear, an appealing married couple from Martella's and Edna's acting company, Sir John finds evidence clearly pointing to one particular person as the murderer. The rest of the novel concerns Sir John's effort to attain some kind of justice.
Enter Sir John is a well-written novel, especially effective when it focuses on provincial English stage life. Unfortunately, as a detective novel it struck me as somewhat thin. About 40% of the novel is devoted to the arrest, trial and conviction of Martella; then Sir John begins investigating and quickly discovers the truth. What he does about it takes up most of the rest of the novel.
In short, the book seemed to me less a tale of detection than a crime novel, with the focus more on emotional drama (although admittedly there is some detection). This is fine, of course, except that I did not find the characters compelling enough to provide sufficient emotional tension, absent a strong puzzle interest. I think Ianthe Jerrold's The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930), like the detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, offer a better balance of good writing and plot.
Moreover, I got a bit tired of hearing about how wonderfully bred Martella was and how the dead Edna was so common and vulgar. To be sure, Sir John makes a successful amateur sleuth character, but he did not seem to me quite memorable enough to carry the tale himself. For me the most interesting characters were the married actors, Markham and Dear, but they remain secondary figures (for my part I would have enjoyed a whole novel about them, with or without a murder; and I should note that a few years after Enter Sir John appeared Clemence Dane published one of her most popular novels, Broome Stages, a tale about several generations of actors).
Also problematic is the resolution of the mystery, about which I feel the best thing that can be said is that it is dated. It's not likely to go over all that well with modern readers, I suspect. Interestingly, the authors' foreword to Enter Sir John gives credit for the plot to the publisher C. S. Evans, who the authors state, should be the "third name added to the two which stand at the head of this story....they owe Mr. Evans gratitude for the happy weeks spent in developing the story...." With all due respect to Mr. C. S. Evans from Mr. C. J. Evans (alias the Passing Tramp), I would say the plot in this case was not the strongest aspect of the story.
Reviewing Enter Sir John in the Saturday Review, Dashiell Hammett, about to forever shake up the mystery publishing world with own novels, gave the book somewhat equivocal praise. He declared that while Sir John himself had "earned a place in the small company of amateur sleuths who aren't altogether unbearable," the story had an unfortunate tendency to "slip over from mellowness into sentimentality" and was "very soggy in spots." Nevertheless, he deemed it "agreeably told," with "an interestingly devised crime." On the whole I would say Sir John came out far better at Hammett's hands than Philo Vance had a couple years earlier, when Hammett reviewed S. S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case.
People should read the novel themselves and see what they think, of course, but regrettably it was never reprinted in paperback and relatively cheap copies have become hard to find. I was fortunate some dozen or so years ago to be able to purchase from a bookseller a few novels from the Detection Club library that the Club had allowed to come upon the market, and my copy of Enter Sir John is one of these (three of the books, incidentally, I sold to Martin Edwards, archivist of the Detection Club; before Martin came along the Club hadn't had an archivist, which it looks like was something it rather needed).
This copy has the Detection Club bookplate, designed by the artist Edward Ardizzone, beloved for his illustrations for children's books by Eleanor Farjeon, sister of Jefferson Farjeon, and his cousin and Detection Club member Christianna Brand, among others (see my comment on this 2010 blog post by Martin). It also bears a dedication, dated February 1929, not long after the book was published, from Clemence Dane to Helen Simpson (as John Norris suggests below, did they exchange copies dedicated to each other?).
|The game is afoot! On the|
Edward Ardizzone bookplate a mystery addict stalks
the bookshelves of the Detection Club library
Helen Simpson was an active member in the Detection Club in the 1930s and a good friend of Gladys Mitchell, one of the Club's stalwarts. My guess is that Simpson, or perhaps her husband after her death, donated this copy of Enter Sir John to the Detection Club library. She died far too young, at the age of forty-two.
Having been diagnosed with cancer in 1940, Simpson was a patient in a London hospital when the Germans began their horrific air assault on England's capital on September 7, 1940. Under wretched conditions Simpson and other desperately ill patients were evacuated to the countryside for safety. There she died five weeks later, on October 14. She was survived by her husband and her only child, a daughter named Clemence, after her collaborator in crime fiction. Clemence Dane lived another quarter century, but never produced any more crime fiction as far as I know.
Perhaps in this second decade of the 21st century Sir John will stage another grand entrance, and the crime fiction of Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson will be brought back into print. These books surely merit some renewed attention, given the talents of their authors.