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Poisoning, detecting, Golden Age larking about – and spanking????

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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

 

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A post-modern detective story?

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The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

I’ve often thought how rubbish I’d be on a jury, as whenever I’ve watched fictional court scenes I’ve been swayed back and forth by the arguments of the opposing counsels until I don’t know who to believe. And I’m even more convinced having read Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”, a recent addition to the very wonderful British Library Crime Classics series.

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Berkeley is a most unjustly neglected author, as my experiences of reading his work have been wonderful. Under this pseudonym (his real one was Anthony Berkeley Cox) he created the detective Roger Sheringham, a most entertaining sleuth. Another nom de plume was Francis Iles, and under this one he produced the very highly regarded “Malice Aforethought”. Iles was later reinvented as a critic; this book, however, is his most famous one as Berkeley, and it’s really very special – certainly one of the BL titles I was most keen to read.

As usual, the book features an excellent introduction by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, giving an outline of Berkeley’s career. And the story itself is a fascinating read, and a most unusual one. Roger Sheringham has set up a Crimes Circle, a group of notables with an interest in crime and criminals – and most obviously this is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Detection Club, which Berkeley was instrumental in forming. There is the famous barrister Sir Charles Wildman; dramatist Miss Fielder-Flemming; novelist Alicia Dammers; crime fiction author Morton Harrogate Bradley; and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, a diffident man about whom little is said.. On the evening in question, as the book opens, they are joined by Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, a friend of Sheringham, as the latter, being the Circle’s president, has a proposal to put to the members.

A murder has taken place, that of Joan Bendix, who’s been poisoned by a doctored box of chocolates. The twist is that the sweets in question had been sent to one Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, purporting to be a free sample from the company that produces them. Pennefather dismisses the promotional stunt angrily; and as Graham Bendix, who happens to be nearby, mentions that he owes his wife Joan a box of chocolates after losing a bet, Pennefather gladly hands them on to him. The chocolates are duly delivered to Mrs. Bendix, who reports that they taste rather unpleasant; Graham Bendix tries a couple and agrees, and so when the poison takes hold it only makes him ill as he ate so few; for Joan Bendix, who ate a good number, it proves fatal.

This is the pretty and knotty problem facing the Crime Circle; who tried to kill Sir Eustace and why? There are few clues, as the box was posted on evening in the middle of London, and there are no fingerprints on the wrapping or anything else to give a hint as to the killer. Scotland Yard are baffled and so Roger Sheringham proposes that each member does a little sleuthing, presenting their findings at later meetings to see if the amateurs can outdo the professionals. Of course, Sheringham himself wants to be the one who finds the solution and we do see some of the detecting from his point of view.

So the various members go off to do their investigating; and what’s fascinating is how each turns out to have some individual knowledge of the people involved in the murder. Sir Charles, for example, has a hatred of Pennefather, who is revealed to be something of a womanizer and who’s been chasing his daughter with a view to marriage for money. Several members know the Bendixes, and reports of the temperament of Joan, the happiness or not of their marriage and each partner’s peccadilloes vary. As I read on, each subsequent explanation was totally convincing, proving how easy it is to twist facts to meet theories – I ended up really not knowing who was the guilty party! It’s a tribute to Berkeley’s skill as an author that each individual explanation has a completely different angle and interpretation of the characters and events, and that each is utterly believable.

Facts were very dear to Sir Charles. More, they were meat and drink to him. His income of roughly thirty thousand pounds a year was derived entirely from the masterful way in which he was able to handle facts. There was no one at the bar who could so convincingly distort an honest but awkward fact into carrying an entirely different interpretation from that which any ordinary person (counsel for the prosecution, for instance) would have put upon it. He could take that fact, look it boldly in the face, twist it round, read a message from the back of its neck, turn it inside out and detect auguries in its entrails, dance triumphantly on its corpse, pulverise it completely, re-mould it if necessary into an utterly different shape, and finally, if the fact still had the temerity to retain any vestige of its primary aspect, bellow at it in the most terrifying manner. If that failed he was quite prepared to weep at it in open court.

This book really could be described as post-modern in that it actually deconstructs many of the tropes and conventions of detective stories. The Circle members are quite happy to discuss the tricks that authors use to bamboozle the reader, and how easy it is to draw erroneous conclusions and make a convincing argument for almost anyone being the murderer! Berkeley playfully pokes fun at the genre, but always in an affectionate way and this doesn’t interfere with the joy of following the mystery and the deduction; it’s also very funny! And the book finishes in a wonderfully open-ended way, with the reader pretty much free to agree with any of the conclusions reached or none of them.

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“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” comes with some excellent extras in the form of an additional chapter with a solution by noted author Christianna Brand, first published in 1977; and a rather wonderful subsequent one by Martin Edwards, written especially for this edition. I didn’t think Brand’s piece gelled particularly well, but that by Edwards was just wonderful. He captures brilliantly Berkeley’s style and his solution is ingenious and believable with a marvellous twist on the last page – so make sure you don’t read that by mistake!

I have to say that the British Library Crime Classics are one of the joys of the modern publishing world; I love Golden Age crime anyway, and reading these rediscovered classics is such a pleasure. “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” is definitely going to be up there among my favourites of genre; it’s perfect reading for those who just want a brilliant Golden Age read, or for those who want something that delves a little into the whole business of classic crime writing. Highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

Amorality in the Golden Age of Crime

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Dead Mrs. Stratton by Anthony Berkeley

If in doubt, grab the nearest Golden Age mystery – that’s a mantra that usually works for me, particularly when I’ve been flinging myself through as many books as I did during half term! The mystery in question has a bit of a history – back in the 1980s (as I’ve probably rambled on about before) the Hogarth Press had a bit of a reboot. Originally the name of the publishing venture of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Chatto and Windus revived the name and brought out a number of intriguing books in distinctive purple covers. One strand was Hogarth Crime, and I had a number of these books as well as a very fetching dagger shaped bookmark listing other titles. One of those other titles was “Dead Mrs. Stratton” by Anthony Berkeley, an author I hadn’t read, and I never did get round to getting a copy at the time. However, in the interim I’ve discovered Berkeley and his detective, Roger Sheringham, properly and so when I spotted a copy of “Dead Mrs. Stratton” in a local charity shop I grabbed it – well, some of your interests don’t change over the years, do they?

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“Dead Mrs. Stratton” was first published under the title “Jumping Jenny” in 1933, and as it opens Roger Sheringham is attending a rather macabre Murder Party being hosted by his friend Ronald Stratton (a detective novelist…) Hurrah, thinks the reader, a country house setting – and you wouldn’t be far wrong, although this isn’t a big Downton Abbey-style place, just a more modest and quirky one, with a large roof terrace upon which is set a gallows. At present, it has three dummies hanging from it, one female and two males (the Jumping Jenny and Jumping Jacks); however, it doesn’t need a Poirot to see that someone more substantial will end up hanging there.

The party is populated by an interesting collection of relatives and locals; there is Ronald’s ex-wife, her man friend, and Ronald’s new fiance; Ronald’s brother David and his hideous wife Ena; David and Ronald’s sister Celia; some local doctors plus their wives; and a forthright Scottish journalist. The complex relations between this group of people gradually develop as the party and the night goes on; and it seems that the vicious and unpleasant Ena is lining up to be the perfect victim. There is in fact a murder which happens very much on camera, and that’s when things start to get complicated…

I shan’t reveal too much more about the plot because this is such a joy to read that I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Let’s just say that much of the so-called detecting in fact involves efforts to convince the local plod that the victim committed suicide and Sheringham is as inaccurate in his deductions as everyone else. In fact for a substantial part of the story, he’s under suspicion himself and so has to do plenty of sleuthing to try to clear himself. There are twists and turns up till the very end, and I didn’t see the final page’s revelations coming at all. Berkeley can plot and write remarkably well and he’s head and shoulders above some of the writers from the Golden Age whose works have also gone out of fashion.

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I’ve headed this post “Amorality…” because when you stand back and look at it, the plot is in fact strikingly *wrong*! Someone is killed, and regardless of their faults, the usual modus operandi is for the Golden Age detective to solve the mystery and thus put the world to rights. The world is certainly put to rights here, but in fact it’s the murder that’s done so, not the solution of it. The victim is described as mad at several points, and the modern me feels just a little uneasy at the fact that it was considered better by Berkeley to kill off a (fictional) mad person rather than have them get some help.

But putting this slight discomfort aside, “Dead Mrs. Stratton” was a cracking read, if a little dark, and I really do like Sheringham as a detective; in fact, I don’t know why his books aren’t more in fashion nowadays because they’re eminently readable and great fun. Fortunately, the British Library Crime Classics imprint is bringing him back to the fore, with his short stories appearing in a couple of collections which I read – and I see that “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” is due out later this year. I’m glad I finally got to read this book after a few decades, and I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Roger Sheringham’s escapades.

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