A cycling holiday through the Wye Valley of Wales is coming to it’s end for a small group of friends. And when Charles Price fails to turn up after a race down Rodland Hill, “none of them was particularly sorry to be deprived or Sir Charles company for a mile or two.” It seems Sir Charles Price, the heir to Rhyllan Hall, who has recently returned after many years in Canada, is “[j]ust a little larger than life in every way.” Thinking he has a puncture, or more likely, gone back for a drink at an inn, they move one, expecting he will them catch up.
The following day his body is found at the bottom of a nearby quarry, but with a bullet through his head it is clear that this is a case of murder. All of the evidence points towards Morris Price, Charles’ uncle who was destined to take the title until Charles was found.
Luckily, John Christmas, and his friend Sydenham Rampson, are on holiday in the area. Having met the cycling party on the road, Christmas takes a keen interest in events. All the evidence points to the deceased man’s uncle Morris Price, who is openly hostile, refusing to answer questions or explain his actions. But when the Coroner’s inquest comes in with a verdict “that deceased met his death by shooting at the hands of Sir Morris Price” Christmas, convinced of his innocence is determined to investigate, and come up with the truth.
Based on the plot outline you would think that Dead Man’s Quarry might be just another hackneyed tale. You know the one—the murder of the not particularly likeable long-lost heir who returns to take up his title and estate, usurping the role from from the man who the has cared for the estate for years. And it is, but in Jerrold’s hands it is far from cliché you imagined.
What set’s it apart in part is Jerrold’s characterizations. John Christmas makes a very engaging amateur sleuth, as Rampson says, he’s “got a hopelessly romantic, novel-reading way of looking-at things.” He is reluctantly aided by his friend, Sydenham Rampson, who serves as a rational voice in the face of Christmas’ unwavering belief in the Price’s innocence.
‘That’s all very well, as long as you don’t let yourself forget that your own presumptions, however plausible, aren’t proof. It’s very easy for a person with a hopelessly unscientific mind like yours to overlook the difference between fact and conjecture.’
‘I know,’ said John humbly, ‘But you’ll never let me forget it for very long, Sydenham, so that’s all right.’”
He is also assisted by another notable and original character, Nora Browning. Nora is a childhood friend, and of, and has an unreciprocated love for Morris’ son Felix Price. In her role as Watson to Christmas, she is observant, intelligent and intuitive. With regards to her relationship with Felix, she is rational and does not allow it to hinder her. She is not merely a foil for her male counterparts. More often she shines brighter than they do.
Jerrold also uses humor throughout, injecting it quite cunningly via several secondary characters, and with very good effect. There is Lion Browning, Nora’s wise-cracking little brother, whose enthusiasm for accuracy provides Christmas with much needed information. My favorite though is Mr. Clino, an elderly Price relation, hiding his secret indulgence in detective stories and valiantly setting upon ruffians who attack in the night.
Oh yes, there is also the mystery. There are intriguing plot developments and red herrings, definitely enough to keep anyone who loves detective fiction guessing. And then there is that twist at the end that most won’t see coming!
My Ruling – 4/5
Vintage Mystery Extravaganza – 2012 – Vintage Themes – Cherchez l’Homme: Book 2 of 8 with male detectives
Calendar of Crime Reading Challenge – September #3: Primary action takes place in this month