#138: The Second Shot (1930) by Anthony Berkeley

Second ShotBefore Anthony Berkeley’s recurring sleuth Roger Sheringham appears at just past the halfway point of The Second Shot, we are told by narrator Cyril ‘Pinkie’ Pinkerton that we possess all the necessary information to work out who shot bounder and all-round bad apple Eric Scott-Davis.  I have two problems with this: firstly it is not true, as there is sundry information revealed in the epilogue that we had no possible way of knowing, and secondly it renders the entirety of Sheringham’s investigation invalid for you, the reader, as you know there’s nothing new to be uncovered.  It’s an odd decision for an author who strove hard to redefine the limits of the ‘mere’ puzzle novel, but then Berkeley has always been rather erratic in his output to my tastes.

Mostly the second half of the book is a series of excruciatingly extended scenes that are either woefully redundant (a long time is spent in one chapter discussing whether or not Sheringham should be made aware of a key piece of information…but since his investigation would be fatally hindered by not knowing it, it’s obvious that he must and will be told) or painfully out of place (the musical hall comedy that the inquest into the death descends into simply does not belong in this book).  The repetition of facts around the location and intended destination of everyone at the time of the murder ends up being more confusing than helpful, too…really, this entire part is a complete mess.

The first half, however, is glorious.

Pinkerton in particular is an astonishingly deft piece of characterisation: a real coup of pomposity and social awkwardness, a childishly naive stuffed shirt unaware of his own shortcomings, and so decorously strict that virtually no form of social behaviour is anything other than unutterably untoward.  He reminded me of the superbly graceless narrator Wellington Chickle from Leo Bruce’s Case for Sergeant Beef (1947) in how completely clueless he is to the effect of his actions on the people around him and, indeed, their perception of him.

This is made all the more wonderful by statements such as…

I must confess that I have not found it necessary to make a study of my fellow creatures in order to see through most of them as plainly as if they had been made of plate glass; the average human being is wearyingly transparent.

…and…

It will have been gathered by the reader that I have not a very high opinion of the opposite sex, and this applies equally to its physical attributes as to its mental powers.

Yes, he’s kind of a dick, but the joke is very much on him.  If the other characters don’t quite get a look in around the obtuseness of Pinkerton’s own personality, that’s no real shame: it’s difficult imagining anyone being able to share a page with him and come off well for the experience.

The setup, too, is suitably classical and arranged with impressive economy: weekend visitors to  country house, a game of murder is suggested to test some local detective authors, the intended fake victim ends up a real actual victim; sensation.  Agatha Christie would reuse a very similar framing device — though much more successfully — 26 years later for Dead Man’s Folly, but Berkeley adds an additional aspect of meta-setup to this by the fake situation being cooked up for the authors to unfold actually being the real situation among the guests concocting the ‘story’ (affairs, squandered fortunes…Berkeley was really a classicist at heart).  It’s such wonderful things as this that commend Berkeley so fully: he always knew how to take any situation and push it to its absolute limits, adding flourish after flourish until your full-dress detection novel resembles nothing more than a corkscrew designed to open itself.

It’s a crying shame, then, that this wit, innovation, and frivolity seems ever more a will-o’-the-wisp as the book progresses, banished to a distant memory come the end (the whole thing about there being two shots…I understand it, but I didn’t care enough to get involved in why some people heard both and some only one; Berkeley himself doesn’t seem to think it too important from what I can figure out).  For all Berkeley’s sagacious work within the genre, you can’t help but feel that he should really maintain a consistency across his improved version of the thing he’s trying to change, otherwise his point is rendered somewhat invalid.  Again, the longer form appears to elude his grasp convincingly — this book encapsulates his writing career in that regard — as his own faltering interest betrays him.

Your best bet?  Read the first half up to the appearance of Sheringham, then read the epilogue.  That gives you an excellent novella and displays more of Berkeley’s strengths than his weaknesses.  Dammit, and he’s a King of Crime, too; Brad will never let me live this down…

star filledstar filledstarsstarsstars

I submit this as part of the #1930book meme for Crimes of the Century at Past Offences this month, and for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Hand Holding Weapon.

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40 thoughts on “#138: The Second Shot (1930) by Anthony Berkeley

  1. “Dammit, and he’s a King of Crime, too”
    Well, according to you ! Not according to me ! 🙂
    Regarding this book, while I agree with your observations, I feel that your rating of 2 stars is a bit harsh and I would rate it as 3 stars considering the good plot and the shock ending. However, it is often a drag with unnecessary padding and filled with silly acts and silly dialogues.

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    • Possibly two stars is a little harsh, but it represents my immense frustration at a wonderful opening half very simply not being lived up to in the concluding one. I could write the most brilliant locked room setup imaginable, but I wouldn’t know how to conclude it…that would undo everything that came before it in my eyes.

      And yes, ‘padding’ is certainly the word.

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        • Ha, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I did enjoy the fact of his undoing in the solution given how much waffling on he did at times — Berkeley got that convention reversal spot on, and it’s always nice to see him come up with a slightly different take on Sheringham’s failure each time. That’s brilliant, it just needed to be put in a more consistent set of books!

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  2. Hmmmm. Now the pattern is broken – I’m feeling slightly less guilty about not snapping it up when I could. Then again, it’s a real shame that ‘The Second Shot’ failed to live up to the potential of its first half. Looks like Berkeley hadn’t written many excellent works that reach the heights of ‘Poisoned Chocolates Case’. 😦

    P.S. For some reason I always interpreted the title as a golfing reference…!

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      • “The Hangman’s Handyman” took me DECADES to track down, in the pre-internet days, and I wished when I’d finished I’d never bothered with the trouble or expense. It has some promising elements a la “Rim of the Pit”, namely a legend about a creepy thing called an “odh” that decays your body super-quickly, but the explanation for what happens is just nonsensical, and the protagonist is considerably less interesting than one might prefer. You can buy a copy from Ramble House these days if you want one. The only reason I wish more people knew about it is that “odh” would be a really useful Scrabble word 😉

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      • I don’t dislike ths as much as Noah — the first half, set in an old house on an isoltaed island where the electricity has failed — is fabulously atmospheric. I also liked Rogan Kincaid a lot more in this than in the second book, where he was far from the most interesting or memorable charatcer; there’s a lot more done with him in Hangman’s Handyman, I’d argue.

        As a puzzle…it’s a bit convoluted and possibly a little hoary, but I enjoyed it as the stepping stone it proved to be. Given how easily availble it is, I’d recommend buying it; it’s good fun — sure, no masterpiece, but then how many books really are?

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        • I think my dislike was principally because I’d waited ten years to find a copy, and paid (I think) $200 for mine. I was rather expecting something that was the equal of Rim of the Pit and let’s just say that wasn’t what I felt I got LOL. Interesting about your take on Rogan Kincaid … in Hangman’s Handyman, I remember thinking he was much more sleazy and opportunistic. But it’s been years since I read this. Although I don’t intend to enrich Ramble House by getting another copy to confirm my memories LOL.

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        • Two. Hundred. Dollars. I applaud your dedication. For that alone I will gladly and genuinely buy you a RH copy myself if you ever wish to investigate this title again.

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        • Oh, I used to spend that much on scarce books all the time. The thing is, I had/have excellent connections in the bookselling trade, and I could usually sell it again within a few weeks for the same price if not more. I wasn’t wealthy, but I did find a way to read these books without it costing me too much.

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  3. Thanks for the warning. Like you I find Berkeley’s work quite mixed, with some exceptionally brilliants one pieces such as Before the Fact, Malice Aforethought and Trial and Error and then some ones which were more average.

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    • The Iles books are awesome, but then they tend to be more experimental from the first. By contrast, the Berkeley titles are usually a more convetional setup skewed to end up in a less than conventional place come the close. Maybe that’s the difference: as Iles you start off expecting there to be some convention-baiting, whereas as Berkeley a certain distance has to be made form the standard, and sometimes he’ll do this more successfully thatn others…

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  4. If Dead Man’s Folly (meh) is “much more successful,” then I’m skipping this. I think Poisoned Chocolates is brilliant, but I’ve had no success with others I’ve tried. A Shane, too, because my local library has an amazing number of them.

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  5. Julian Symons in “Bloody Murder” calls this book “disappointingly conventional” but quotes the preface with apparent approval:
    “I am personally convinced that the days of the old crime-puzzle, pure and simple, relying entirely upon the plot and without any added attractions of character, style, or even humour, are in the hands of the auditor; and that the detective story is in the process of developing into the novel with a detective or crime interest, holding its readers less by mathematical than by psychological ties.”
    I don’t find this as pleasurable a prospect as Mr. Symons but Cox’s work as Francis Iles was certainly ground-breaking. If you’re looking for a “conventional” puzzle mystery by Anthony Berkeley whose solution made me laugh out loud, try “Top Storey Murder”. It might have made a better short story, but it’s certainly clever.

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    • Top Storey Murder and Panic Party are, I believe, the only two Berkeleys I have left to read, so it’s great to hear there’s something there to look forward to.

      I think I’ll just disagree with anything in Bloody Murder on principle from now on…

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      • Regrettably I suspect you may find Top Storey Murder a bit of a wheeze. My amusement was with the way in which the solution subverted the reader’s expectations, but it’s rather what North Americans call a “shaggy dog story”. But just to be clear — I was quoting Symons’s quotation of what Berkeley himself said in his own introduction to the book. Mr. Cox (Berkeley/Iles) foresaw the rise of the crime novel and rather contributed to it, I think, with his work as Iles. Symons wholeheartedly approved because he seems to have found the entire Golden Age problematic.

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        • Oh, yeah, I remembered the quote from the book itself, I’m just going to oppose Symons’ smugness and rejection of all things puzzle. I’m going to have to read his, ahem, bloody book at some point, I know, but I’ll put it off until such a time as everyone else is out of the house.

          And, if anything, you’ve simply made me even more curious about Top Storey Murder now…

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        • Whether or not you find you agree with everything in Bloody Murder, it’s a great read — a better read, for me, than the two or three novels of his I’ve read.

          I’ve for decades put off reading any SS Van Dine/Philo Vance bevcause of Symons evisceration of the series I recently came across the suggestion that the early version of Ellery Queen was just a clone of Philo Vance and, since I love the early Queens (and the middle ones, and most of the later ones . . .), a couple of days ago I took a plunge with The Benson Murder Case.

          Reader, Symons was spot-on.

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        • Yeah, the van Dines can be a little hit and miss; I like to think of him as a kind of later Poe — sure, he did it first, and occasioanlly he hit on a really nice idea or celever conceit and explored it well (Dragon Murder Case, say), but by later standards he doesn’t really stand up any more.

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        • I had fully intended to read and review The Scarab Murder Case for Rich’s 1930 celebration. I have owned a first edition for years that I had barely cracked open. But . . .

          I loathe Philo Vance so much that I want to murder him, don’t ya know! I hate the footnotes. In fact, the only thing I’m enjoying is the gorgeous fold-out map of the murder scene, from when books really knew how to do maps! But it isn’t enough, my friends, it isn’t enough!

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        • I have the exact same problem with Peter Wimsey, with the added consideration of his author going on about how inferior a form of entertainment detective fiction is. At least van Dine was signed up to what he was choosing to do with his life…!

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        • Like you, I have the same diff’culty with Wimsey, old bean, though for me he did become a trifle less insuff’rable in the later novels. Maybe Vance did too, but I’m reluctant to risk a spell in the jolly old bughouse by trying another.

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        • I dunno. I’ve just been looking through a batch of Goodreads opinions and there are more people sayin’ that Vance is True Fab than there are excoriating him and the horse he rode in on. I didn’t notice any particular guy/gal split, but I wasn’t exactly being rigorous.

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    • There is so much gold that comes from the mind of Cyril Pinkerton, but a lot of it requires context and/or runs much longer. He’s a wonderful character adrift in half a wonderful book, which is such a shame.

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  6. By the way, I note that your next book is The French Powder mystery. Don’t ever glance at the last page (in fact, the last line) !

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  7. Pingback: ‘A full account of how to make a jam omelette’: The #1930book round-up | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  8. Pingback: The Second Shot (1930) by Anthony Berkeley | crossexaminingcrime

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