I started reading this purely by chance, after spotting it when I was looking for another book. Once I had started I had to keep going and it wasn’t long before I was kicking myself for keeping it waiting for a very long time. Ianthe Jerrold wrote beautifully and she told an intriguing tale.
That tale opens on the last day of a cycling holiday on the Welsh borders. The cyclists were Dr. Browning; his daughter daughter Nora and her friend Isabel; his young son Lion; his nephew Charles, who had returned from exile in Canada after inheriting his father’s title and estate; and his cousin Felix, who was adored by Nora and adoring of Isabel.
When the group arrived at the top of hill and saw a long descent ahead of them, they agreed that they would free-wheel down, setting off at regular intervals to reduce the chance. Reassembling at the bottom of the valley, they found that two of the group were missing. Isabel, who had set off first, soon reappeared; but there was no sign at all of Charles, who should have set off last.
Felix’s father, Morris Price, the prime suspect. He would inherit the title after managing the estate for many years; he had been in the area when Charles was last seen; he refused to give an account of what he had been doing on the day in question; and his revolver which was used to fire the fatal shot.
He was belligerent and uncooperative at the inquest; an inquest that ended with a guilty verdict being brought against him.
Luckily, there was one man outside his family circle who believed him to be innocent. John Christmas, was holidaying in the area with his cousin Sydenham Rampson; and he saw the weight of the evidence but he also observed the reactions of the accused man, and that was what made him quite certain that he was not the guilty party.
He found many lines of enquiry. The dead man had not made himself popular, firing a long serving member of staff and shooting his sister’s dog without a hint of remorse; and maybe someone had followed him back from Canada. The mystery of what the accused man had been doing on the day of the murder had to be resolved. There were also questions to be asked about the changed bicycle and the whereabouts of the murder weapon.
Those enquiries drew in family and friends, the staff of the house and the estate, local people, and a mysterious visitor to the area.
They also threw up some wonderfully disparate clues. I could fit some of them together, I had some idea how the story might play out, but I couldn’t work out everything and I was by no means certain. John Christmas had to think long and hard, but in the end he explained everything and solved the mystery.
I liked the detective and his somewhat reluctant sidekick. It was clear that they were good friends as well as cousins, and I loved their dialogues and that each of them could be both witty and cynical. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and I was always interested to find out more about the people in this story. They came from right across the class spectrum, so I could see just how life was in the big house and in the nearby village.
I could have happily spent more time in this part of the world and with many of the people who lived there.
This is a mystery that works because the human story is so good, and because Ianthe Jerrold wrote very well, created a distinctive plot and paced her story perfectly, so that I was always asking different questions and concerned about different characters and incidents and possibilities. She picked out exactly the right details, there were some lovely touches, and I particularly liked the way she left some subtle clues that I could spot before they were picked up on by her characters.
The ending doesn’t quite live up to what came before – it was a little too contrived and a little too melodramatic.
As a whole though, the book works.
Ianthe Jerrold was invited to join the Detection Club based on the success of her first two mysteries – this is the second – but though she continued to write for many more years this is the last recorded case of John Christmas and her last work of detective fiction.
I’m interested to see what else she wrote, but I can’t help being a little sorry that she changed course and that I only have one more of her mysteries to read.