Thursday, February 20, 2014

The “J for Jennie” Murders

T. Arthur Plummer (1883-1961) was an English writer of detective stories who is now about as thoroughly forgotten as it is possible for an author to be. Between 1929 and his death  he wrote no less than seventy crime novels, including fifty featuring Detective-Inspector Frampton of Scotland Yard. That he produced so many books over such a long period suggests that he must have had some success during his lifetime.

It appears that none of his mysteries were ever published in paperback, which would partly account for the obscurity into which his work has fallen. Whether his failure to have any of his books published as paperbacks was because they were considered to have insufficient appeal to make such publication worthwhile or whether it was due to some other reason remains unknown. Perhaps he had a literary agent lacking in energy, perhaps there were obscure contractual difficulties, or perhaps his work somehow just fell through the cracks.

The “J for Jennie” Murders was his twenty-first Inspector Frampton novel, appearing in 1945. It is in many ways a typical enough example of the golden age detective novel. The plot is extremely complex with almost every character turning out to be not what they seem to be. There are secret marriages, there are characters using aliases and there are events in the present that have their roots a long way back in the past. Every character seems to have some dark secret in his or her past. There are murders in country houses and there are murders in theatrical settings.

Perhaps that was part of Plummer’s problem - a tendency to throw everything but the kitchen sink into his plotting. The book groans under the weight of so many detective story clichés. 

Blackmail and ambiguous wills were the favoured plot engines of so many mediocre crime novelists of that era. In this case Plummer has gone for the blackmail angle and he has perhaps overdone it, with too many characters being the targets for too many blackmailers. Plummer is also inclined to complicate his basic plot with myriad sub-plots. 

Over-ingenious plotting is not necessarily a fatal flaw. A writer with style and flair could keep the reader interested in endlessly multiplying plot twists. Plummer does not quite possess that elusive quality of flair. His writing style has an unfortunate tendency towards clunkiness.

An intriguing detective hero was always a major asset to a crime writer. Plummer tries too hard to make Frampton eccentric and amusing. Murder and humour could be a very successful combination but to do it successful required a light touch. Plummer’s attempts at humour seem rather laboured. Frampton never misses an opportunity for a wise-crack but the result is to make him irritating rather than amusing.

That combination of murder mystery and humour became less fashionable in the 1950s, mostly as a result of overuse. This could well be the reason for Plummer’s descent into obscurity.

Despite these flaws The “J for Jennie” Murders boasts an ambitious plot that is not entirely lacking in interest.

Finding any of Plummer’s books would have been difficult in the extreme before the days of online used book shopping. It’s still not easy. Used copies of some of his books can be found although finding an affordable copy of a particular title will present a very considerable challenge. At the moment there appears to be only one used copy of The “J for Jennie” Murders available at the most popular online used book site. Whether the effort is worthwhile is debatable but if you have a taste for obscure crime novels by forgotten authors it’s possibly worth giving Plummer a chance. 

No comments:

Post a Comment