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.
Mostly the second half of the book is a series of excruciatingly extended scenes that are either woefully redundant (a long time is spent in one chapter discussing whether or not Sheringham should be made aware of a key piece of information…but since his investigation would be fatally hindered by not knowing it, it’s obvious that he must and will be told) or painfully out of place (the musical hall comedy that the inquest into the death descends into simply does not belong in this book). The repetition of facts around the location and intended destination of everyone at the time of the murder ends up being more confusing than helpful, too…really, this entire part is a complete mess.
The first half, however, is glorious.
Pinkerton in particular is an astonishingly deft piece of characterisation: a real coup of pomposity and social awkwardness, a childishly naive stuffed shirt unaware of his own shortcomings, and so decorously strict that virtually no form of social behaviour is anything other than unutterably untoward. He reminded me of the superbly graceless narrator Wellington Chickle from Leo Bruce’s Case for Sergeant Beef (1947) in how completely clueless he is to the effect of his actions on the people around him and, indeed, their perception of him.
This is made all the more wonderful by statements such as…
I must confess that I have not found it necessary to make a study of my fellow creatures in order to see through most of them as plainly as if they had been made of plate glass; the average human being is wearyingly transparent.
It will have been gathered by the reader that I have not a very high opinion of the opposite sex, and this applies equally to its physical attributes as to its mental powers.
Yes, he’s kind of a dick, but the joke is very much on him. If the other characters don’t quite get a look in around the obtuseness of Pinkerton’s own personality, that’s no real shame: it’s difficult imagining anyone being able to share a page with him and come off well for the experience.
The setup, too, is suitably classical and arranged with impressive economy: weekend visitors to country house, a game of murder is suggested to test some local detective authors, the intended fake victim ends up a real actual victim; sensation. Agatha Christie would reuse a very similar framing device — though much more successfully — 26 years later for Dead Man’s Folly, but Berkeley adds an additional aspect of meta-setup to this by the fake situation being cooked up for the authors to unfold actually being the real situation among the guests concocting the ‘story’ (affairs, squandered fortunes…Berkeley was really a classicist at heart). It’s such wonderful things as this that commend Berkeley so fully: he always knew how to take any situation and push it to its absolute limits, adding flourish after flourish until your full-dress detection novel resembles nothing more than a corkscrew designed to open itself.
It’s a crying shame, then, that this wit, innovation, and frivolity seems ever more a will-o’-the-wisp as the book progresses, banished to a distant memory come the end (the whole thing about there being two shots…I understand it, but I didn’t care enough to get involved in why some people heard both and some only one; Berkeley himself doesn’t seem to think it too important from what I can figure out). For all Berkeley’s sagacious work within the genre, you can’t help but feel that he should really maintain a consistency across his improved version of the thing he’s trying to change, otherwise his point is rendered somewhat invalid. Again, the longer form appears to elude his grasp convincingly — this book encapsulates his writing career in that regard — as his own faltering interest betrays him.
Your best bet? Read the first half up to the appearance of Sheringham, then read the epilogue. That gives you an excellent novella and displays more of Berkeley’s strengths than his weaknesses. Dammit, and he’s a King of Crime, too; Brad will never let me live this down…