No Walls of Jasper (1930) by Joanna Cannan

No Walls of Jasper by Joanna Cannan 1930 book cover

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“All along Canberry Gardens, in the lighted dolls’ houses, children’s voices called good night. Julian too, setting out to murder his father, felt perfectly ordinary.”

Some would say that Julian Prebble has everything. A nice home, attractive wife, two boys, and a promising career. But Julian can’t help feeling that he doesn’t have quite enough. He shouldn’t have to live in a semi-detached house, with his wife stretching the joint to last two days. Other men of forty are farther along in life, all because their fathers died and left them the money to make a proper start. Meanwhile, his invalid father lives on and on, wasting more money every minute he’s alive.

It’s not that Julian wants his father to die. Still…wouldn’t it be convenient if he did?

No Walls of Jasper is a superb inverted crime novel, very simple and very effective. Its tale of a man who will do anything in pursuit of respectability is reminiscent of Malice Aforethought, published by Francis Iles the following year, but it is both less crime-focused and less mean-spirited (though every bit as funny). Despite the predictability of the plot, No Walls of Jasper is an incisive psychological study that is offers just as much insight into the victims as it does the killer.

The crime plot is relatively straightforward and unfolds in an unhurried fashion. The few twists that take place are very mild, as the coldblooded Julian fails to consider the human factors that might affect his plan. He can’t imagine that his half-brother Eric truly loves his father, that he himself might be unable to control a flirtation with one of the firm’s authors, or that his wife Phyllis could be unhappy with their marriage. The real pleasure of the book is its detailed exploration of the Prebbles and how evil is able to take root in their drab suburban lives.

Yes, life could be beautiful and exciting; could pulse, delight and thrill. But not for him. He was condemned to Canberry Gardens, to labour six days, and mow his lawn and ask his neighbours in to coffee and discuss gardening with the men and the iniquities of morning-girls with the women, those housewives and mothers to whom he was not a man, but Mrs. Prebble’s husband, the father of those boys…And when he began to walk back along Canberry Gardens, because he had no money and that was the end of it, before his mind’s eye, there passed an imaginary scene. He was in his office. A telephone bell rang, and a voice said: “Is that Mr. Prebble? This is Doctor Hornburn speaking. I am very sorry to have to tell you, Mr. Prebble, that your father has passed away.”

Over the course of the novel Phyllis in particular emerges as an individual far different than her husband imagines. Julian vaguely recalls that she was rather intelligent before they married, but he frames her transformation into a hapless drudge purely as a loss to himself, the absence of the presentable wife he deserves. Phyllis herself experiences this loss on a deep, personal level. The daughter of an Oxford don, and an Oxford graduate herself, she once knew Greek and quoted poetry by the ream. Now, “not even secretly, nor a captive, lived her old self. She had forgotten the seventh stanza of the ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ didn’t know who had written ‘The Pulley,’ couldn’t have quoted the closing lines of Lycidas. When she was alone, she thought of Michael’s difficult character and how long, with luck, John’s shirts would last.” When she meets a kindred spirit, the old Phyllis reemerges—much to the dismay of Julian, who finds that he preferred a less independent wife after all.

Cannan has a lot of fun at the expense of the literary world via Julian’s job at a stuffy, old-fashioned publishing house.

The Old Man wants to advertise his three-and-sixpennies,” said Walter Bailey. “What the hell’s the use? No one buys The Poetical Works of Cowper or Southey’s Poems, unless he’s damned well got to, and if he’s got to, he does. I mean, advertising won’t keep that sort of stuff going, it’s the Board of Education, God bless it.

The one bright spot on their list is historical novelist Cynthia Bechler. Her forthcoming “cloak and sword” novel Nor Devil, Nor Spaniard promises to be another bestseller, and Cynthia herself provides an attractive change of pace around the office. In contrast to Julian’s dull wife, “Cynthia Bechler saw life no thin-lipped spiritual experiment, no evolutionary interval, but a rich, abundant, emotional affair, splendid as purple velvet, dramatic as a sword-hilt, dangerous as a dinner with the Borgias, passionate as a rose.”

Julian believes that the fascinating Cynthia is attracted to him and hopes, through her, to gain entry to elite social circles. Like Phyllis, however, Cynthia turns out to have a mind of her own, and her relationship with Julian does not go exactly as he had planned.

Another subplot involving Julian’s illegitimate brother Eric serves as an interesting commentary on Victorian morality. Their father George Prebble frequently rails against the moral failings of the postwar generation (despite Julian’s feeble defense that young people were permanently harmed by a lack of sugar during the war). However, George rejects his drearily respectable legitimate son in favor of happy-go-lucky Eric, for exactly the same reasons he preferred his mistress to his wife. He lavishes money and affection on Eric, which Julian resents. Julian’s coldness only causes George to cling to Eric even more. Thus, the dysfunctional dynamic created by George’s adultery is carried forward into a second generation. “It was a marvel,” Julian thinks, that Eric “could look happy when he was illegitimate, and prosperous when he had been booed by the gallery on the first night of She’s My Girl, and out of a job ever since.” Julian cannot understand the appeal of Eric or his “useless” lifestyle because it does not fit into his own rigid Edwardian worldview, just barely more modern than those of his father or employer.

Julian is dangerous precisely because up to now he has always found it easy to behave, allowing him to believe himself a naturally good and moral person. If he has never been tempted to do wrong, than the actions that tempt him now must therefore be right. Of course, he’s not actually good, only conventional.

Julian Prebble’s tragedy is not just that he’s a monster, but that he’s such a profoundly ordinary one. Even before he thinks of killing his father, Julian is a petty domestic tyrant, criticizing his wife’s housekeeping and barring the maid from the bedroom because he’s convinced she will steal his small change. Men like him are a dime a dozen. Julian’s dream is to be respected and admired when in fact, there’s nothing special about him at all, not even his crimes.

Second Opinion

Martin Edwards

In some ways, the book is in the same vein as Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles. Yet the Iles book came out a year later, so it was hardly derivative. Another comparison might be with C.S. Forester’s earlier novel,Payment Deferred, or possibly Lynn Brock’s later Nightmare. But Cannan’s book is distinctive, because of its stylish and readable prose, and because a competent plot is in many ways subordinate to a study of character.

Availability

 No Walls of Jasper is out of print and quite rare, though it is available in a few libraries.

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8 thoughts on “No Walls of Jasper (1930) by Joanna Cannan

    1. Hard to find, but worth it. (Not the first time interlibrary loan has come to the rescue!) Several of Joanna Canaan’s other mysteries have been reissued, which is great, but this one always seems to be overlooked.

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    1. Thanks for sharing the link to the online text. Cannan and Heyer were close friends for many years. I’ve read speculation that the character of Cynthia is based on Heyer due to their shared profession, but their lives and personalities don’t seem very similar. If anything, Cynthia is more like a forerunner to Christie’s Salome Otterbourne! It’s always fun, though, to find these friendships between authors.

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      1. You are quite welcome and thank you for the additional information on Heyer and Canann. It may be a recent phenomenon of our times that many people prefer to cultivate only those others that are closest to themselves and regard opposites or those merely dissimilar as a threat. The lure of the different may be going the way of the dodo. “Olden times” education encouraged cultivating opposites as “broadening”. No criticism here, just an observation.

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  1. Tantalising me with impossible to find books again! I have tried a couple of Cannan novels, but from much later in her writing career. I was actually surprised she was writing this early and this unusually, as the later two books I read by her were much more conventional, though still enjoyable. Maybe one day I will find a copy of this… *sighs*

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    1. Ah, but look above, the internet giveth! I’m never sure how legal those Digital Library of India texts are for those outside of India, though.

      I’ve read two of Cannan’s other books, and also found them entertaining but not innovative. Much like No Walls of Jasper, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about social class in them, however. For some reason I especially remember a suspect saying that their family never leaves personal items in the bathroom because it’s so suburban, and the police detective feeling ashamed because he does leave his things in the bathroom. Make of that what you will.

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  2. Cannan is someone, rather like GDH and Margaret Cole, whose books I will stumble over occasionally without any idea of what titles are worth trying. But, hey, this is somewhere to start, since it sounds rather fabulous — all I need to so now is wait twelve years to happen upon another copy!

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