The Studio Crime by Ianthe Jerrold

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Reviewed by Harriet

Published in 1929, this is the first of only two crime novels written by Ianthe Jerrold.  The descendent of a celebrated literary family, she became a member of the newly formed Detection Club but abandoned conventional crime writing for romantic fiction and psychological thrillers. This seems a bit of a shame, as The Studio Crime is an extremely lively and enjoyable novel.

It all starts at a small party in the London studio of the celebrated artist and caricaturist Laurence Newtree. Among the guests are a great philanthropist, an eminent psycholanalyst, and a doctor. But the most notable presence is that of the well-known writer Seraphine Wimpole, who terrifies the shy Newtree not only because of her reputation but also by her striking appearance:

The strong salient line of the lady’s nose, the cigarette dangling gamin-wise from between unexpectedly full pale lips, the long pointed hands like a medieval saint’s, the long pointed feet like small canoes.

Seraphine and her ‘kind, lazy, middle-aged aunt’ have been brought to the studio by Newtree’s friend John Christmas, a clever, observant young man who takes great delight in studying his fellow human beings. It’s a foggy night, and the company is interested, though not particularly alarmed, when two of the guests describe separate encounters on the way to the studio with a mysterious foreigner in a fez, who had asked both of them the way to Golders Green. Then strange noises from the flat upstairs, inhabited by the collector and traveller Gordon Frew, cause the party to go up and investigate. The door is locked, but they break it down, only to make a disturbing discovery.

‘He is dead. It is quite impossible that he should have killed himself. He has been murdered. About half an hour ago. By a long knife passed under the left shoulder-blade into the heart’.

A classic locked-room mystery then, and one which defeats the police, headed by Inspector Hembrow of Scotland Yard. But John Christmas is determined to solve it, and his investigations take him to the most unlikely places – a shabby antique shop in a grimy, poverty-stricken West Kensington street, a grand Oriental carpet dealer’s off Baker Street, a North London Victorian terrace that has seen better days – and into the company of a disparate bunch of people including a young woman dressed as a medieval page boy, a crossing sweeper, a sad and struggling ghost writer, and a wily Greek carpet dealer.

Needless to say, nobody is quite what they seem, least of all Gordon Frew himself, whose life turns out to have been built on a tissue of lies. And needless to say it is John Christmas’s skill and ingenuity that puts together all the seemingly disconnected threads and comes up with a brilliant solution.

I enjoyed this novel tremendously. The characters, though in one sense very much of their time, are simultaneously completely believable if mostly somewhat eccentric, and I loved the settings and background of 1920s London. As for John Christmas, he is the most attractive amateur detective imaginable. He reappeared in Dead Man’s Quarry (1930), Jerrold’s second and, as it turned out, final foray into detective fiction. She was certainly a great loss to the genre – her writing is full of life and wit, and her plotting admirably ingenious. Well done to the newly established Dean Street Press for making these novels available.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Ianthe Jerrold, The Studio Crime (Dean Street Press: London, 2015). 9781910570449, 284 pp., paperback.

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