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.
Berkeley would go on to excel not just at the puzzle plots under his (partial) own name, but also the inverted mysteries published as Franics Iles, with Malice Aforethought (1931) probably the pinnacle of a subgenre that was once again a rather callow baby when Berkeley took it on – if you can’t envisage how the normal tension and surprise of a crime novel can be maintained when the culprit is known up front, you seriously need to read that book. Additionally, like fellow classic crime alumni Edmund Crispin and Anthony Boucher, Berkeley – as Iles – would go on to become a celebrated crime reviewer and a regular feature-writer in newspapers once his career as a novelist had been discontinued. I have no idea why he stopped writing fiction, but in 14 short years he produced a range of novels and had an effect on the crime genre that would be inestimable in a career four times as long and is staggering when its brevity is taken into consideration.
Growth: Anthony Berkeley gets a throne ahead of Ellery Queen – and I realise that this will upset many of you – because he did most of what Dannay and Lee did, just first and in a way that carries far more heft because almost no-one had done it before and most of what he wrote now seems horribly derivative because everyone started doing it after him. Roger Sheringham, Berkeley’s amateur sleuth of choice, is a moderately-insufferable pompous ass, a know-it-all in the spirit of Ellery Queen (character), who simply turns up and starts solving things, but as Berkeley noted himself in that first book:
I have tried to make the gentleman who eventually solves the mystery as nearly as possible as he might be expected to do (sic?) in real life. That is to say, he is very far removed from a sphinx and he does make a mistake or two occasionally. I have never believed very much in those hawk-eyed, tight-lipped gentry who pursue their silent and inexorable way straight to the heart of things without ever once over-balancing or turning aside after false goals.
Berkeley built on this intention throughout his books, in no way inventing the false solution but utilising it in a raft of ways that expanded what was possible within the crime novel: in one book Sheringham outlines the guilty party and everyone agrees they must be shielded from the repercussions of the crime, only for the epilogue to then reveal someone else to actually be guilty. Trial and Error (1937) reverses this setup, with a murderer being unable to convince the authorities of their guilt when an entirely innocent person falls under suspicion (shades there of Israel Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery (1891), of course). The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) precedes Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) in establishing the trick of multiple wrong solutions on the way to the correct conclusion…while his methods weren’t always the purest (there are two chapters in The Layton Court Mystery that should be wiped from the annals of crime fiction), the new shapes he found for the genre undoubtedly expanded its scope and possibilities in rich and intriguing ways.
Additionally, Berkeley was responsible for establishing The Detection Club, wherein the great and the good of crime writing – and Gladys Mitchell – have mixed for years. Not only did this play beautifully into the spirit of the emerging puzzle plot by encouraging some extremely playful and entertaining collaborations, it also established – less sternly than van Dine, and with less scope for misinterpretation than Knox – the form and expectation of the crime novels that era produced, and ensured an environment for these unclubbale men and women that would nurture and encourage the continuation of the spirit of their undertakings for years to come. There is, in short, an argument that Anthony Berkeley is responsible for the shape of the genre as it developed through the Golden Age. Sure, authors would most likely have written those books anyway, but in giving it a name and a structure he helped focus the production of plots that we’re still reading, loving and craving some 90 years later.
Durability: Being far less hidebound than many of his contemporaries, Berkeley veered more erratically around the roads and alleyways of classically-defined crime fiction, and it has to be acknowledged that a fair amount of his writing doesn’t quite hold up these days. This is in part because he was establishing the rules when the very notion of having rules seemed a little outré, but also because so many authors then followed suit and refined his ideas to the rapier that most of the classics remain.
However, consider the following from Jumping Jenny (1933), when Berkeley took it upon himself to provide some additional authorly perspective on Roger Sheringham:
He has…very often been wrong. But that never deters him from trying again. [H]e has unbounded confidence in himself and is never afraid of taking grave decisions, and often quite illegal ones, when he thinks that pure justice can be served better in this way than by twelve possibly stupid jury men. Many people like him enormously, and many people are irritated by him beyond endurance; he is quite indifferent to both. Possibly he is a good deal too pleased with himself, but he does not mind that either.
Now, find me a detective in contemporary fiction to whom that description cannot be applied in all good faith. It’s John Rebus, it’s Harry Hole, it’s Jack Reacher, it’s John Luther…it is, in fact, the template of pretty much every detective going. It would be hideously discourteous to claim that all fictional detectives are simply the bastardised reimagining of Roger Sheringham – not least because literary influences are a Gordian knot of unfathomable proportions – and fallacious to say that Berkeley did this first or trailblazed Sheringham in that way (it equally applies to Holmes, of course), but he captured the essence of not just the gentleman detective or the amateur genius detective but of all detectives, and provided a basis and a reasoning for persevering in this spirit.
More than this, though, is the fact of a) Berkeley speaking out on Sheringham’s behalf – recognising, perhaps, that he was something of an arse to begin with – and b) the careful and gradual changes even in his few books that Sheringham went through come the end of his time. There was an admission there of the role played by the detective as a proxy for the reader, and the idea that the reader will be more inclined to side with a character if they are, if not likeable, then at least aware of their flaws. There’s a nugget of something there, seen for possibly the first time, that has endured throughout all narrative fiction, and will remain true long after Berkeley and his peers have unjustly faded from memory.