Monday, July 25, 2011

Trial and Error

As I said when I reviewed R. Austin Freman’s The Eye of Osiris, I intend to take a look at various Crime Kings from the Golden Age of Detection—male authors to whom time has been unkind. The females have done a bit better—Agatha Christie is still in print, and you can regularly find stuff on a bookstore’s shelves by Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh. But Anthony Berkeley Cox’s case is a truly tragic one. Berkeley was in his time an extremely prolific author and the founder of The Detection Club in 1928. He wrote under the names Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles. DeAndrea argues in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa that:

… It was as Francis Iles that he made his greatest contribution to the genre, writing novels not of detection but of criminal procedure. His belief was that the mystery story was transforming into a “puzzle of character”, and he did his best to lead the way. Malice Aforethought (1931) is told from the point of view of a weasely doctor who intends to murder his wife and does so. In Before the Fact (1932), Iles pulls off the even more remarkable trick of chronicling the events leading up to a murder from the point of view of the neurotic young wife who is the intended victim. With the ending altered and the name changed to Suspicion, this became a classic Alfred Hitchcock film.

I will be looking at a Berkeley title instead of an Iles- I will review Malice Aforethought some other time. But I have a question: how is it that an author so talented goes from having a novel adapted by Alfred Hitchcock to the quagmire of obscurity? Berkeley was a grandmaster and deserves better recognition than he has gotten. Thankfully, The Langtail Press has reprinted a slew of books by Anthony Berkeley. If you haven’t read Berkeley, I definitely recommend checking him out… and the book Top Storey Murder (which TLP hasn’t gotten around to reprinting, though I hope they do) is a solid example of his work.

Top Storey Murder is a very fun work. Roger Sheringham, Berkeley’s master sleuth, is about to go to lunch with Chief Inspector Moresby, when the latter receives a telephone call and goes off to a routine case. A woman, rumoured to have stashed money in her apartment, had her flat burgled and was killed in the process. (Strangled with a Rosary, curiously enough—and the paradox involved in such a murder weapon fascinates me.) It’s the kind of affair Scotland Yard can deal with easily and efficiently, and Moresby invites Roger to accompany him to the crime scene to see how the pros go about their job.

Roger accepts, of course, and right from the get-go the burglary doesn’t quite satisfy the master sleuth, who starts visiting the other tenants in the house and comes to the conclusion that this was no run-of-the-mill burglary.

Roger Sheringham seems to always be the butt of Berkeley’s jokes. In The Poisoned Chocolates Case, he proposes a brilliant theory to a murder case, only to have it irrevocably torn to shreds. In Jumping Jenny, he is firmly convinced an innocent man is guilty of murder and goes about to obstruct justice. Now, in Top Storey Murder, he hires a secretary under an impulse… though, after all, the young woman was the murdered lady’s estranged niece. Suddenly, Roger discovers just what the job hiring entails, as she shows up promptly in the morning, taking away his right to sit in a dressing-gown as long as he likes in the morning and manfully hiding from her.

Anthony Berkeley created Roger Sheringham for the express purpose of having an offensive detective in his stories, although plenty of obnoxious detectives were running around at the time. (The most famous and arguably most obnoxious of these, Philo Vance, would appear in The Benson Murder Case, a year after Sheringham appeared in The Layton Court Mystery in 1925.) The difference is that it was the author’s intention all along—I never got such an impression with Philo Vance (who needs a good kick in the pance). Some of Sheringham’s actions in this book are questionable, such as when he asks his secretary to go into a store and be as unpleasant as possible to the manageress, so that he can note what kind of anger she expresses when pushed to the limit.

Which brings me to another interesting question: Berkeley’s misogyny. In my previous encounters with Berkeley, I barely noticed this angle. It didn’t intrude into the story, which was both interesting and told in a genuinely delightful way. Top Storey Murder really brings it out into the open, though, as Berkeley laments the disadvantages of marriage. Yet this is all handled in a superbly comic way as well, with Roger Sheringham being driven from his own house by his new secretary’s presence. In a priceless scene, he more or less implores his manservant Meadows to affirm that he is the master of the house. In our enlightened times, misogyny is frowned upon, but it is handled in an extremely comic way here that still makes for entertaining reading.

What about the mystery? Well, it’s the weakest one I’ve come across in Berkeley’s work. The solution isn’t much of a surprise when it comes to the mechanics of the crime, but I did get the culprit entirely wrong. Unfortunately, at the same time, there were no clues pointing to the culprit as the culprit, or anyone as the culprit, really. It’s the mechanics that are fairly clued, and I think those may have lost much of their surprise, particularly to the observant reader.

And yet, the book is such a blast it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. Anthony Berkeley is unfortunately widely forgotten—even his role in the writing of The Floating Admiral was downplayed in favour of the myth that only Agatha Christie ever possessed any ingenuity in the Golden Age. Top Storey Murder is a good showcasing of Berkeley’s strengths as an author, despite the unusual weakness of its conclusion: its story is imaginative and it is told in a delightful, witty manner that is certain to please. The only question mark that could be raised is how sensitive the reader is to the question of misogyny, which is certainly more pronounced here than in Berkeley’s other works.


  1. Hmm..It's a little confusing to give your review of one Berkeley book the title of another.

    As for Berkeley's misogyny, you can see it very clearly in The Silk Stockings Murders.


  2. There are some wondeful Berkeley books, and he has done well in reprints, but he has been largely forgotten by the man on the street. I'm afraid that this is the common lot for most authors. I have a load of books by Dennis Wheatley, the famous thriller writer who was a top seller from the thirties through to the seventies. Until Wordsworth reprinted three of his more famous titles he had been out of print for decades. We probably shouldn't ask why most are forgotten, but why some (Christie,Sayers) remain in print.

  3. Well, to answer your question regarding the quagmire of obscurity... he clawed out of it when the now defunct House of Stratus reissued all of his mysteries, which, I think, was more than a decade ago. And don't pin me on this, but, from what I understood, he was all-but-forgotten until that publishing house revived him – and thus able to reclaim some of his former glory. So he sort of crawled out of it.

    And if you meant mainstream recognition I can only painfully laugh at the idea. He can be too much fun, remember.

    Good review, by the way, I've have been searching for this title for a while now. Maybe it's time to finally read my TLP edition of Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery.

  4. I love this book, and though I'll admit the solution is not a fascinatingly intricate one-- it's basically just a "twist"-- it's a pretty terrific twist, and is beautifully designed to allow for the unintentially ambiguous phone call to Inspector Moresby-- which allows for a miraculous "saving of face" at the end.

    The book also probably has my favorite last three lines of any novel in ANY genre.