What’s in a name? When you’re dealing with GAD authors, quite a lot, which is why I’ve read 71 books by Agatha Christie but have yet to pick up any by Mary Westmacott, or why so much attention is paid to the four books Barnaby Ross published in his two-year career. So when I say this Anthony Berkeley novel would be far better were it by Frances Iles, you will hopefully appreciate my point. I thought it worth looking at the genre’s arch convention-challenger — one of the four most important male authors of his era, according to some attractive genius — for the 1937 Crimes of the Century and have come away somewhat confused, bemused, muddled, harried, and generally all a-fluster.
I’ve read a lot of comics in my time, I spend many hours online enthusiastically contributing to discussions about a moderately obscure area of popular culture — hell, I even wear glasses. I must, therefore, be a nerd. I mean, sure, I don’t own a single t-shirt emblazoned with some hilarious-but-obscure quote or image, but that’s mainly because the kinds of things I’d put on a t-shirt — “Hairy Aaron!” or, say, a decal of Gideon Fell above the legend Don’t irritate a man who knows 142 ways to kill you without being the same room — no-one else wants on a t-shirt and so they’re not available to buy.
The setup of The Poisoned Chocolates Case is rightly very famous: a lady is killed when a box of chocolates given to her husband by another member of his gentlemen’s club — who himself received them unsolicited through the mail — turns out to have been laced with poison. The police, with no culprit in sight, allow six amateurs with a fascination for real life crimes to theorise and present their own solutions, each one appearing watertight until someone finds a flaw that brings the edifice down. For this conceit alone, and the genius way Berkeley uses his different sleuths to unpick the sparse and simple known facts, this book has passed into near-legend in detective fiction circles.
Before 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.
It being the ever-approaching end of the academic year, I’ve tended to focus on short stories for these Tuesday Night Bloggers posts on poison because I simply haven’t had the time to read more than one book a week, and I need to keep those for my Thursday reviews. So this week I thought I’d take on one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ short stories featuring her other sleuth, the purveyor of fine wines that is Mr. Montague Egg. This is another one taken from The Big Ol’ Black Lizard Book of Wowsa That’s a Lot of Stories Massive Gigantic Compendium of Impossible Crimes But for Some Reason They’ve Included A Huge Section of Surely the Most Anthologised Stories of All Time, and so once again it has an impossible element. Yes, I am nothing if not fond of playing to type.
Bookends: The Layton Court Mystery (1925)/Death in the House (1939)
Books published 1920-59: 21
The Case for the Crown
Diversity: Anthony Berkeley Cox’s commitment to the crime novel is evinced from his first appearance on the scene with the publication of locked-room stumper The Layton Court Mystery (1925) for which he didn’t even bother to make up a nom de plume. Early versions of the book simply had the author listed as “?” – message: you want a puzzle, here’s a puzzle. You were getting – before Carr, before Queen, before Christie was anything close to a household name – the promise of something that had mystery not just in its title but at its very heart (and the follow-up, The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926), was published as by The Author of The Layton Court Mystery!). Sure, it was demystified shortly thereafter with the American publication (as Noah Stewart points out, it makes you wonder where it went on library shelves prior to that, doesn’t it?), but for a little while it was doubtless quite an intriguing notion – the crime novel as we know it was still in its very nascent stages, don’t forget, and while the content may not have quite matched the cover in that regard…well, more on that later. Continue reading →