Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sound and Fury: Enter Sir John (1928), by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

Like Ianthe JerroldClemence Dane (1888-1965) and Helen Simpson (1897-1940) became original members of the Detection Club on the strength of a single detective novel, in their case the well-reviewed stage milieu mystery, Enter Sir John (1928). Also like Jerrold, at the end of their first year in the Detection Club Dane and Simpson produced a second detective novel, this one set in the publishing world, Printer's Devil (1930) (in the US Author Unknown).

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
Clemence Dane
Both Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson (again like Ianthe Jerrold) were already praised mainstream novelists when they published their first detective novel.  Dane's first work of fiction, Regiment of Women (1917), drawn partly from her experience teaching at a girls' school, was quite favorably received; and her 1921 play A Bill of Divorcement was a big stage hit, later adapted as a 1932 film starring Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore (this was Hepburn's first film).

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
Helen Simpson
Enter Sir John concerns the brutal poker murder of backbiting provincial stage actress Edna Druce (she's Magda Druce in the American edition, "Edna" apparently having been deemed an insufficiently lofty handle by publishers across the pond).

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 ReviewDashiell 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.


  1. Really fascinating to get all this, thanks Curtis. I only really knew of the book because of the Hitchcock adaptation (which incidentally he shot twice - as MURDER for the English market and as MARY for Germany with a local cast headed by Alfred Abel.

    1. How do you like Murder! Sergio? I feel the need to watch it now. I have a theory it may work best as a film, actually.

    2. It's one of those films that is usually praised for its technical dexterity in the early days of sound (like the opening tracking shot and the scene at the mirror with the voiceover, which had an off-screen orchestra) and its vaguely transgressive choice of villain (which today is a character also seen as being a coded gay character). On the other hand, it is also a bit forgettable once you get past its standout elements - the fact that the German version survives for comparison is also another point in its favour, from an academic standpoint at least

  2. I haven't read this one but I'm quite familiar with the Hitchcock adaptation and I'd agree with Hammett, "very soggy in spots". Herbert Marshall is -- well, I can't decide between wooden and limp, and I know those two are polar opposites, so perhaps you should see for yourself. He acts as though Hitchcock has told him he needs to project "niceness" and he's manfully trying, to the exclusion of every other thought or emotion. But thanks for digging into the book so thoroughly, this will be interesting to look at now that I have some background.

    1. I'll have to see the film. I would say Sir John is one of the better aspects of the book, actually, but having the wrong actor can kill a part in a film, of course. From what I've read, the adaptation sounds rather faithful for Hitch, although it has Sir John serving on the jury (rather a cliche), which he did not do in the book. Despite my complaints about the book being thin as a detective novel, I think it could work well as a film, if it weren't for the dated resolution.

  3. Very odd that one half of the writing duo inscribed a copy to the other half. Didn't Helen have her own copy of the book? Or did they trade copies to one another maybe as a sort of joke...?

    I had two copies of this book for decades, now I only have one -- the UK 1st edition having sold the US edition I had to Darrell Johnson (of "the Study Lamp" blog). The one time I tried to read it I couldn't get into it at all. I put it back on the shelf and have never returned to it. But I may try it again after your review. Thankfully I will be prepared to be truly let down in the final chapters and won't go blowing my top as I often do when confronted with lame and dated solutions. ;^)

    1. I like your idea of a joke, John, I did wonder about that too! Could this have been intended as a library donation? These early Detection Club often were remarkably thrifty. The library definitely was used, especially by Margaret Cole, who complained that not enough members were donating their fair share of books, in contrast with herself. A lot of the DC books that came up for sale were by Margaret and Douglas Cole books.

      When DC members were reading books by prospective members they often passed around the same copies to everyone. I got the impression many members often did not actually buy many copies of mysteries. You'd think they would have had copies of their own books though!

      I have mixed feelings about Enter Sir John. As said, it's well-written, I think, but the plot is underwehlming, I think.

  4. I have been aware of this book for years, without ever having the chance to read it. Thanks for a full and frank review, full of fascinating extra info!

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