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Wednesday 4 May 2016

Ianthe Jerrold (1898-1977)

Detectives of the Golden Age
by Carol Westron

Ianthe Bridgeman Jerrold was born into a clever, literary family; her great-grandfather was a well-known Victorian playwright and journalist, her great-uncle a journalist and author, her father was an author and newspaper editor and her mother was an author, who was best known for a controversial three-volume life of Queen Victoria. With such a background, it is not surprising that Ianthe Jerrold developed a precocious talent for writing. Before she was ten years old she had short stories appearing in newspapers, and by 1918 she had published two books of poetry and had two short stories in the magazine The Strand. Despite this literary out-put, she also worked in a munitions factory during World War I.

In 1923, she published her first novel, Young Richard Mast: A Study of Temperament. This was followed by Hangingstone Farm (1924), Uncle Sabine (1925), Midsummer Night (1927) and in 1929, her first detective novel, The Studio Crime.

Ianthe Jerrold was the eldest of five daughters, all named after characters in Greek mythology: Ianthe, Daphne, Phyllis, Hebe and Althea. Twins Daphne and Phyllis attended the Slade School of Art and Hebe also showed an interest in collage art. Ianthe and her sisters spent some years living and working in a studio flat in St John's Wood, London, and it was in an artist's studio flat that she set her first detective novel.

It is in The Studio Crime that Jerrold introduces her amateur detective, John Christmas, the wealthy son of a department store tycoon. Christmas is 'a young man with a gift that amounted to genius for making friends with all sorts of people. He had been born under a happy star. He had his fair share of good looks, the good humour born of perfect health, the free, natural good manners of one who delights in his fellow-creatures and that alert and sympathetic sort of mind to which the meaning of the word “boredom” is unknown.' He has already been involved in investigating one murder and has a taste for amateur detection and links with Scotland Yard, in the person of Detective Inspector Hembrow. Christmas is visiting his friend, the caricaturist, Laurence Newtree, in company with a fascinating mix of people, including the celebrated playwright and novelist, Serafine Wimpole. The scene is set for crime with the city engulfed in the 'unpleasantly yellowish darkness' of a London fog, which adds to the problem of identifying the killer when the man who owns the studio above Newtree's is murdered.

The Studio Crime is a delightful novel, with humour and beautifully drawn characters, especially the delightful Laurence Newtree and eccentric, sharp-witted Serafine Wimpole. The modern reader might feel that the clues to the identity of the murderer are sowed rather too profusely, although there are plenty of red herrings. The novel was an immediate success and earned for Jerrold admission to the prestigious, newly-formed Detection Club, of which she was one of the original members.

In 1927 Jerrold married George Mendes (the brother of the celebrated violinist Isolde Mendes) and moved with him to a dilapidated farmhouse in the Wye Valley, which they spent much time and effort renovating.

In 1930, Jerrold published her second John Christmas novel, Dead Man's Quarry, in which, following the trend of her real life, she moves her detective story out of London into the Welsh Marches, the border land between England and Wales. In fact the story was inspired by a family cycling trip and is dedicated to  her sister: 'To Phyllis who, in her enthusiasm for wild strawberries, kept us waiting at the foot of Hergest Ridge long enough to give rise to the most lurid surmises and to the plot of this story.' Indeed, Dead Man's Quarry opens with a family cycling expedition and introduces the reader to one of the most beguiling of Golden Age female protagonists, art student, Nora Browning, who for much of the book becomes 'Miss Watson' to John Christmas' Holmes. 'Nora was not in the habit of noticing casual reflections of herself. She had grown up on good terms with her own face, which was indeed neither beautiful nor plain enough to trouble her.' She is a remarkably level-headed young woman and 'did not intend to allow her holiday to be spoilt either by her own love affairs or those of her companions.' Unfortunately for Nora, her holiday is destined to be ruined when one of the members of her cycling party disappears and, soon after, a body is discovered at the bottom of the quarry. John Christmas, who is on a motoring holiday with his cousin, is on hand to investigate.

Dorothy L Sayers criticised the trend of detection novels that were involved only with solving the mystery without providing emotionally engaging characters and settings. In her first two detective novels, published in 1929 and 1930, Jerrold produces well-rounded novels with delightful characters, emotional tangles and exquisitely described settings. It is clear that she loved the countryside in which she settled, as in this beautifully observed description of the cyclists heading towards home:
'the sky was filled with the subdued golden light of a fine, windless August evening. The long grey tree-shadows lay perfectly still over the road, and the Welsh hills on the far horizon lying in the sun had a look of glassy fragility, as if they belonged to a distant fairy world.'

It is interesting that, just as Jerrold hit her stride in crime fiction and, indeed, was ahead of the game, she stopped writing detective stories and returned to literary and romantic fiction for the next decade, producing five books in this time. When she returned to crime fiction in 1940, she published a romantic thriller,
Let Him Lie, under the pseudonym Geraldine Bridgeman.

In Let Him Lie, Jerrold has abandoned her early sleuth, John Christmas. The investigator in this book is Jeanie Halliday, a young artist who has just purchased a dilapidated cottage in Gloucestershire from her ex-schoolmistress, Agnes Molyneux, who is now married to a well-to-do landowner, Robert Molyneux. Jeanie had adored Agnes and thought that Agnes cared for her. She is saddened to discover that Agnes has changed into a self-centred, vain and insincere woman. Jeanie has always considered Robert Molyneux to be a kindly and decent man, but when Robert is shot dead there is no shortage of suspects, including Agnes and Peter Johnson, a young man that attracts Jeanie, even though he irritates her by his self-pity. '“In fact, you're Little Misunderstood, aren't you?” said Jeanie crossly. She did not care for melodrama in real life, and Mr Peter Johnson struck her as unnecessarily histrionic in his behaviour. He made no reply. Glancing at him as he knelt on the hearth-rug and worked the bellows, she half repented her tartness when she observed the lines in his white young face, the smudges beneath his eyes, the lips tensed so as not to tremble.'

Jeanie is drawn into investigating the crime. Her old loyalty to Agnes and her newly discovered affection for Peter make her wish to help them but her main motivation is the desire to protect Sarah, Robert Molyneux’s young niece and ward, a vulnerable and damaged child.
One of the remarkable things about Jerrold's crime books is that in the first three there is no mention of war. One can only assume that John Christmas was too young to serve in the First World War and remained unscarred by it, although other characters in The Studio Crime would certainly have been of an age to serve in the armed forces. Although Let Him Lie was published in 1940, a year after the start of the Second World War, it is set before the war. However, the last of Jerrold's crime novels, another romantic thriller, There May be Danger, was set in 1940, in wartime Britain, but it was not published until 1948. Let Him Lie was published by the major firm of Heinemann but There May Be Danger was published by a little known, marginal publisher, Aldus Publications. It is not clear why a very good, romantic thriller should have had so little success but it has been suggested that Jerrold 'missed the boat' and by the time she wished to publish There May Be Danger, the reading public did not wish to relive the early years of war.
At the start of There May Be Danger, Lucy Mayhew is contemplating leaving war-time London and enlisting in the Women's Land Army. Lucy is not fleeing the bombs but is frustrated by the closing of most theatres, which means that she cannot get work as a stage manager. Lucy sees an advertisement appealing for help to find Sidney Brentwood, a twelve-year-old boy, evacuated to rural Wales and feels immediately drawn to discover what has happened to the boy. This desire increases when she seeks out Sidney's great-aunt and realises that she is a selfish, eccentric woman, more concerned with the welfare of her cats than the missing child. In Wales Lucy discovers a close-knit but mainly warm-hearted community who have searched the countryside for Sidney but believe that he had gone off on some adventure of his own and met with an accident in the wild countryside and, by now, must be dead. Lucy also encounters an old boyfriend, Colin Kemp, an archaeologist. Lucy wants to trust Colin but she cannot help wondering what an able-bodied young man is doing surveying archaeological sites when he should be fighting for his country. Despite the discouragement of those around her, Lucy refuses to give up her quest, and, with the help of one of Sidney's school-friends, she tries to think herself back into Sidney's mind and follow in his footsteps, even though she knows something sinister and dangerous may be happening in the quiet, rugged, Welsh countryside.

There May Be Danger
is very different from Jerrold's other crime stories. It is far more of an adventure story, with the central character on a Quixotic and apparently hopeless quest. Again Jerrold's characterisation is excellent, her descriptions of the landscape are evocative and the tension she achieves as the danger draws closer is masterly.

Ianthe Jerrold drew on her life experience to give to her four crime novels validity and strength. Her sisters' background in art fed into her first three books. A family cycling trip produced the plot and atmosphere for Dead Man's Quarry. Her love of Wales and the Welsh border lands weaves through her last three crime novels and, also in the last three, she reveals the knowledge of architecture and archaeology that came from restoring and living in her Elizabethan farmhouse, Cwmmau, situated on the border between Herefordshire and Wales. Something else, even more deeply rooted in Jerrold's personal life, appears in Let Him Lie and There May Be Danger, where her heroines show a concern close to love for a vulnerable child that is not their own flesh and blood. Ianthe Jerrold and her husband had no children of their own but they adopted a daughter, Polly.

Jerrold wrote no more crime novels, although she continued to write and publish other books until the 1970s. She died in 1977, twelve years after her husband, and left her beloved farmhouse, Cwmmau, to the National Trust.

All of Ianthe Jerrold's crime novels have been republished by Dean Street Press and are available in paperback and on Kindle.
The Studio Crime. ISBN: 978-1911095439. ASIN: B00UQYY7QI
Dead Man's Quarry. ISBN: 978-1911095447.ASIN: B00UQYSFS4
Let Him Lie. ISBN: 978-1910570974. ASIN: B0199L81JM
There May Be Danger. ISBN: 978-1910570990. ASIN: B0199L81EM

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014.


  1. Carol, thanks for the detailed article about an author new to me. I assume you're a fan of Golden Age Mysteries. Nice to find someone who shares my interest.

  2. Great post, thank you!