The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley

Well… this turned out to be a bit of an odd one! Goes to show, I suppose, that you should never approach a book with expectations or preconceptions. I was inordinately excited to stumble across this Golden Age Roger Sheringham adventure in the charity shop, as Berkeley titles very rarely turn up – so it came off the TBR pile very quickly. However, I have to say that there were elements of the book that made me quite uncomfortable… more of which later on.

I have, of course, read several Berkeley titles and rated them very highly; he’s one of the Golden Age authors regarded as having been very unjustly neglected, and in particular for “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”, which twists the genre quite wonderfully. He also wrote as Francis Iles and produced the lauded “Malice Aforethought”, so I think I had every right to expect high standards. “Wychford” was his second Sheringham title, first published in 1926, and a fascinating, if unusual read.

The book opens with our detective, Roger Sheringham, visiting his old friend Alexander Grierson and his recently-aquired wife Barbara. Sheringham, a best-selling novelist, is presented here as something of a silly-ass detective in the Wimsey mould – I recall him being like that from the later books, though it’s more pronounced in this story. Roger has become fascinated by the Wychford Poisoning Case, which is all over the news, and has strong views. A Mr. Bentley has died from arsenic and his beautiful French widow is suspected by all and likely to be tried and hanged. However, Sheringham has his doubts; the crime seems too obvious, if the murderer *is* Mrs. Bentley then she has made no attempts at concealment, and much of the case rests on circumstantial evidence and blind prejudice.

Fortunately for Roger, his friend Alec (Alex, Alexander, whatever) has cousins living in Wychford, and after a detour to obtain spurious credentials as reporters, the pair head off to investigate. Their hosts, the Purefoys, are an accepting family, allowing the detectives to come and go and cause havoc as much as they like, while interrogating Dr. Purefoy about the actions of various poisons. Roger vamps various locals to try and find out more about the Bentleys; Sheila Purefoy, a very modern ‘flapper’ and the daughter of the family, joins in with the detecting, and Sheringham gets to pontificate about real-life criminals, reasons for killing and the psychology of a crime. There’s a lot of humour, but also in places quite a lot of common sense, and Sheringham (and presumably his creator) is often very realistic about the foibles of human nature.

The plot itself twists and turns nicely, with just about everybody who was in contact with the dead man coming under suspicion. And the resolution, if a little low-key, was unexpected and not something I think I would ever have deduced. Some of the detecting takes place off-camera and is just reported, and there is perhaps the sense that Berkeley was more interested in showing Sheringham propounding his philosophy as opposed to actually doing the legwork – although the scene where he interrogates a suspect after getting him drunk was great fun. But lor’ can that man spout verbiage! Sheringham could talk the hind leg off a donkey, and I found most of his banter very, very funny; however, I can imagine it might irritate some, which could account for his slipping out of favour.

In only his second outing, Sheringham comes across as very assured and a fully formed detecting character. The 1920s saw a slew of crime novels and amateur sleuths, and as the introduction to this volume points out, many of them drew from the character of Philip Trent from E.C. Bentley’s seminal “Trent’s Last Case”. I did wonder, therefore, if the naming of the murdered man and his wife was a little homage! In fact, there is plenty of name-dropping; the book is dedicated to E.M. Delafield, an author well-known to Virago readers, and there is reference also to F. Tennyson Jesse. Real-life cases get a number of mentions, in particular the Thompson/Bywaters case, which inspired the latter author’s “A Pin To See The Peepshow” (one of my favourite Viragos, a really powerful book) and also Delafield’s “Messalina of the Suburbs”. The book is often digressive in a fascinating way, with regular discussion the psychology of murder – not surprising, I suppose, from a work subtitled ‘An Essay in Criminology’!

OK – so having dispensed with the fun of the plot and of following the mystery through to a satisfying end, let’s get on to the oddities…. Firstly, there is Roger Sheringham’s attitude to women. Berkeley allows him a substantial number of pages in the book to state his thoughts about women and they’re not flattering, to say the least, with our protagonist of the opinion that most women have no brains and aren’t worth the time of day. He’s allowed so many pages of such outrageous pontificating about this that I began to think perhaps Berkeley wasn’t serious; and certainly his women characters *do* have quite a lot of variety, from the clingingly vampish Mrs. Saunderson, to the austere Mrs. Allen, the sensible Mrs. Purefoy and her daughter Sheila, who is allowed to display a serious amount of intelligence.

However, talk of Sheila must lead us to the big issue of the book. Sheila is 18 and a modern woman, apt to pose a little and be mouthy. However, when uncle Alec decides she’s getting too full of herself, he holds her down and spanks her – yes, really, and with her parents in complete collusion. This very uncomfortable, bizarre and frankly embarrassing scenario is repeated or threatened at points throughout the book and sits very, very strangely within the story. What *was* the author thinking of? Was this common behaviour in 1926?? And if so, thank goodness for the women’s movement…

I ended the book having really enjoyed the mystery, but was left feeling very unsettled by the attitudes to women. There’s some real inconsistency here – at times, I suspected Berkeley was allowing Sheringham rope to hang himself and letting him protest to much; and certainly Roger does refer to the fact that the love of his life is married to someone else, so there is a tragedy lurking which could account for his bitterness. Berkeley also allows Roger to flirt with Sheila and appear saddened when she finds herself a young admirer, so the temptation to regard the attitudes as either not seriously held, or at least not held by the author, is there, bumped up a little by the inconsistency. Nevertheless, this retrograde aspect of the book *was* unsettling and detracted in places for me, despite the fact that I normally make allowances for the fact that older books display the attitudes of their time. And it wasn’t the spanking per se that bothered me, but the contempt it expressed for women and the attitude that they should jolly well know their place and if they didn’t it was up to a man to put them back in it – that really riled me, to be honest.

However, I do intend to keep reading Berkeley, despite my reservations with this one, because Roger Sheringham is an engaging detective despite his faults, and I like the way that Berkeley plays about with the genre (and so early in its life, too). I’d like to track down his first book, just to get a bit more background about Sheringham and how he sprang into being, so to speak – and it will be interesting to see if there are any dodgy elements in that one too!! =:o