"Wherever trouble turns up, there am I at the bottom of it."- Lord Peter Wimsey (Murder Must Advertise, 1933)
A year before the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), foreshadowing Agatha Christie's lifelong penchant for twisting the reader's expectations into a surprise solution, another mystery writer had appeared on the scene with a similar tendency – his name was Anthony Berkeley Cox.
Anthony Berkeley was one of the founding members of the London-based Detection Club, who predicted and pioneered the development of the psychological crime novel as "Francis Iles." Under his own name, Berkeley published more than a dozen detective novels and short stories as influential as those by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton.
Every time I crack open one of his books I find ideas that fueled the imagination of some of his better-known contemporaries. I recommend reading Berkeley's The Silk Stocking Murders (1928) and Christie's The ABC Murders (1936), back-to-back, to get a picture of his contribution to the genre – and keep Berkeley's book title and initials in mind while reading Christie's story, especially if you love spotting Easter Eggs. Arguably the best way to acknowledge (and credit) that you're running with an idea that was handed to you. In spite of these accolades, Berkeley faded from popular view and only reclaimed parts of his reputation when House of Stratus began to republish them a decade ago.
Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927) is the third in a series about the titular detective, who possesses the kind of enthusiasm for detective work that's normally reserved for devoted collectors, but at the same time his snobbish demeanor can make him about as unlikable as Philo Vance. On second page Sheringham spouts to his cousin Anthony, "I was trying to write down to the standard of intelligence of the ordinary Courier reader. I appear to have succeeded," in reference to a comment on an article he wrote. This is done deliberately so that you have no qualms about laughing at Sheringham when he nibs himself in the bud at the end. So before the Golden Age had even build up enough steam to plough through the 1930-and 40s, Berkeley had already deconstructed and parodied the genre with the introduction of a fallible, but keen, amateur sleuth – who sometimes only had a wrong solution to contribute (e.g. The Poisoned Chocolates Case, 1929). But he did without demolishing it.
At the opening of this book, we find Roger Sheringham and Anthony Walton canceling their holiday when the Daily Courier ask their correspondent to travel down to Ludmouth Bay in Hamsphire – where the reputable Inspector Moresby was seen meandering at the scene of a suspicious death. Elise Vane was found at the bottom of a cliff, but the presence of Moresby may indicate this was not a case of accident or suicide.
|A.B.C.: "Totally just tied a damsel to a railroad track"|
With Moresby and Sheringham on the case, the reader discovers one motif of the detective story that Berkeley was more or less faithful to: an unlikable victim with more than enough suspects and motives to fill a small bay. There's an unhappy husband and his employee who's in love with him and her cousin, Margaret Cross, who had to endure for a large inheritance and becomes Anthony's love interest, and there's a second death to consider. These snippets of information are bounced between Sheringham and Moresby, who seem to work together while clutching their cards close to their chest, like the friendly-type of "Rival Detectives" I mentioned in the comment section of my previous review. And if you're familiar with Berkeley, you probably know who'll enjoy the final chuckle, however, Sheringham's solution is very clever and one that didn't occur to me until after the second murder... but only because it's was one of those ideas that I have seen other mystery writers play around with.
SPOILER (select to read): The false solution from Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery was the fuel for the plots of John Dickson Carr's lauded The Hollow Man (1935), Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death (1936) and Edmund Crispin's Swan Song (1947). Interestingly, Blake and Crispin also adopted an unusual method for poisoning in their stories to dispose of a second victim.
But having guessed (pardon my French) Sheringham's answer makes Moresby solution all the more fun. The twist in the final chapter turns the book in a sort of anti-detective story ribbing both Sheringham and readers who went along with him, but there was more than enough detective material that I couldn't care less about the final twist. As a matter of fact, I began to love it after Moresby's closing statement to Sheringham (and the reader): "do you know what's the matter with you, sir," he said kindly, "you've been reading too many of those detective stories." Should I plead the fifth or ask for an exact definition of too many detective stories and scrabble my way out of it?
One point that irked me a bit about Moresby's explanation (SPOILERS, select to read): why did Moresby say he did not have anything to go to court with when there was a clear motive, opportunity and evidence (i.e. botton clasped in the dead hand of Mrs. Vane)?
Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is not the best of Berkeley's detective novels, but still an enjoyable and enthusiastic piece of work with perhaps his first grand performance with the multiple solution devices – and a better attempt at the "human detective" than The Layton Court Mystery (1925).