Here we go again, with the usual warnings: this post discusses in spoiler-heavy detail elements of the plot of Mr. Priestley’s Problem, a.k.a. The Amateur Crime (1927) by Anthony Berkeley, also published under the name of A.B. Cox.
Kate at CrossExaminingCrime read this one about 18 months ago and expressed a desire to discuss it with someone, and if you’re going to discuss a book then you’ve got to be able to do so with out worrying about spoilers. And so here we are. It’s one of Berkeley’s less-heralded titles, concerning the 36 year-old Matthew Priestley who, as part of a game played by his friends, is made to believe he has committed a murder and sent on the run. I believe one should class it as a comedy, though my experience makes this feel far too generous…but, well, let’s get into it.
Kate is asking the questions, so where do we start?
Trial and Error, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Malice Aforethought, (which he wrote under the name Francis Iles), are all Berkeley titles which trip off the tongue of a vintage crime fiction connoisseur, yet Mr Priestley’s Problem is certainly not one I’ve seen make the list. What about it has made it overlooked?
Kate: A superficial reading of its gender politics may have made it not stand the tests of time, (more on that later), but at least scarcity and copy prices aren’t as much of a factor, as I have frequently seen copies going for under £5. Compare this to say Professor on Paws (1926), which is going for over £100 at the moment, the scarcity theory doesn’t seem so convincing. However an idea that I feel does hold water is due to the Berkeley’s choice of style and subgenre. This is not a full on puzzle mystery, but more of a thriller, in which we know the original prank the plotters wish to inflict on Mr Priestley, but then we have the fallout of this plan, in which much does not go according to plan and the conspirators end up having to deal with police, who are looking for a murder that never happened and two fugitives are on the run, one of which who knows there was no crime to run from. For those who have read a few novels by Berkeley this book will seem out of kilter, in the way that A. A. Milne’s Four Days Wonder, doesn’t entirely fit with expectations raised by his earlier novel The Red House Mystery.
JJ: Berkeley has always been a bit variable as an author, and love the man’s work though I do let’s not pretend they’re all created equal. But I think the thing that really hold this one back from recognition is that, for someone who innovated so boldly, it just feels very stale. The comedy isn’t funny, the situations aren’t interesting, and so much of it feels like reheated efforts of more famous works. This is Anthony Berkeley stealing from others, ahead of everyone else spending the next century stealing from him.
Kate: On the one hand I can see where you’re coming from, i.e. using from other works, but I found it to be like many of his novels, in that I felt the book plays around with genre conventions and tropes. In particular this book produces a parody of the fugitive on the run thriller plotline. In fact I would go as far as saying that it spoofs John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps. Both have a man on the run for a murder he did not commit, (though in Priestley’s case he never killed the man, he only thinks he did), and there is a female associate, who the protagonist cannot fully trust, yet is handy in evading the law.
JJ: Here’s an interesting example of my point above: until you corrected me, I had leaped to the conclusion that the “checking into a small hotel while handcuffed together and pretending to be married, etc, etc.” routine was lifted from Hitchcock’s movie of The 39 Steps, when in fact you informed me that Hitchcock might well have lifted it from here, (the film coming out 8 years after the book should have been a clue…). However, the lightness and surety of touch Berkeley would display in those titles above is noticeably absent here, implying to me that he’s not entirely comfortable on this turf. Even Buchan – not an author whose works reveals someone of an especially considerate viewpoint — wouldn’t attempt to wring humour from the female lead legitimately believing that the protagonist was going to rape her…
Kate: …Hmm yes I did forget that bit in the book. Awkward… However, I think that was because this was a re-read for me, so it a) wasn’t unexpected and b) I was confident that Mr Priestley would do no such thing. Her sudden collapse at this point into fear though, is perhaps one of the less convincing aspects of the story.
With some books there is always that one issue which makes you wince or shudder – the solution to John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge, for instance — and Mr Priestley’s Problem is no different. It does indeed have one rather large elephant in the room. It’s men vs. women, but whose side is Berkeley really on?
Unfortunately Berkeley does have previous when it comes to including disparaging and derogatory ideas about women in his books and his behaviour in real life was little better. His early work in particular contains some fairly ropey comments on the opposite sex, and the eminent blogger Curtis Evans even once said that The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926) was unreadable because of this issue. With suggestions that women need to marry to find their ‘master’ and nauseating comments such as this one:
‘she said, in a tender little voice that matched her smile, feeling like a mother, and a wife, and a lover, and a sister, and all sorts of other things as well towards this adorably helpless person, so infinitely inferior to herself and at exactly the same time so infinitely superior.’
It is easy to write this book off as a no-go text.
Berkeley was a gifted writer with a wonderful turn of phrase, but broad comedy doesn’t suit him, just as it didn’t Carr. Here his men are idiots, his women are shrews or harridans, and the police are either incompetent, (the constable getting locked in the cupboard, being delighted at having seen the ‘foreign agents’ talking a different language, etc.), or incapable of concentrating on the task at hand because they’re hoping to get their name in the London papers. For a man who did such brilliant work capturing the inherent weakness in people in Trial and Error (1937), or created the delightfully self-demurring Ambrose Chitterwick, he’s incapable of giving you anyone to care about in any way. His comments may be unflattering, but they unflatter in both directions and, in all honesty, I don’t think it’s possible to draw any conclusion unless he’s a nihilist.
I don’t feel the female characters can be limited down to just ‘shrews’ or ‘harridans,’ Cynthia definitely doesn’t fit that mould, nor does Dora really. Even Laura goes more from playful scamp to wet blanket. However, I digress from my point that this re-read helped me to see Berkeley’s barbed comments in a new light. I am by no means condoning Berkeley’s derogatory words, but I think they are a part of a much wider satirical jab, which is actually targeting men and their foolishness, ego and chivalric notions. Dora and Laura Howard, our key young females, are from the get go shown as duplicitous and past masters at dissimulation, not for material gain, but simply because they can. Well it’s a ‘hobby’ for them really. They love nothing better than making men think they are innocent and weak to reel them in, only to then puncture their ‘manly self-esteem.’ But Berkeley is not all that sympathetic towards the men. It’s pretty much shown as their own fault…
‘The unsuspecting stranger (of the male sex of course […]), catching sight of one of the Misses Howard, would swell his manly chest and pat his manly back, and say to himself in his manly tones: ‘Here is a poor, frightened little thing who looks at me as if I were a god. Who knows? Perhaps I am a god. I am very much inclined, when this helpless and pretty little thing looks at me like that, to think that I am. Out with the lance and armour! Are there any dragons about? Or failing dragons, mice? At any rate, it is palpably up to me to protect this delectably timid small person from something, and that pretty quickly.’
It is not hard too then to want to puncture the manly ego of that sort of person…
Ah, but then as soon as these women encounter a man who opposes them in any way they simply go weak at the knees and succumb to the ‘natural’ tendency to immediately marry and settle down…because, of course they would! But even marriage comes in for a drubbing, with even Mr. Foster and his wife – and, goddamn, look at how wonderfully Berkeley captures her at the start of chapter 14…
She was a tepid, pale haired little woman and she knitted a good deal, persistently and quite unnecessarily. She was not one of Mr. Foster’s successes.
… — coming in for this broad brush treatment when she finds his “mistress” living in the tool shed and leaves him. Because of course men are that weak and women that stupid. There’s not one relationship in the entire thing that feels as if anyone actually approves of it, least of all the man who created them.
Well when it comes to the Foster marriage, I think the wife probably gets off more lightly than her husband. One passage which has stuck in my mind is:
‘it was not that she had not made Mr Foster a good wife, for she had begun to live with him nearly thirty years before and was still doing so, nor had she yet ever committed suicide; she even endured his talk without screaming violently or running for the nearest razor.’
Nevertheless I don’t think Berkeley’s work has ever given much in favour of matrimony, though he has been more generous towards it in other stories perhaps. Again I think it is Cynthia who saves the day for the Howards who succumb to marriage; it gives us hope that they’ll bounce back to their former mischief, even if it is done more under wraps. Re-reading this book I also found there is something very imitable of P G Wodehouse’s style, which you can see in Berkeley’s depiction of the battle of the sexes, as well, in particular with unreasonable female demands being foisted onto men, yet soon expressed so they are reasonable in the minds of male characters. A key example is when Mr Priestley is toying with the issue that the woman he has met thinks he is the burglar she has hired and her keenness that regardless of the lack of this profession that he should help her anyways:
‘It appeared to him with sudden and unexpected force how remiss it was of him not to be a burglar. It was not playing the game. Here was this charming girl expecting to meet her burglar, never dreaming that she was doing anything else but meet her burglar; and there was Mr Priestley going about the place not being a burglar at all. His conduct had been despicable; that was the only word for it – despicable!’
Inevitability Mr Priestley thinks he should go through with her unreasonable demand, so again for me Berkeley seems to be implying that what happens to Mr Priestley in the rest of book is that he got what he asked for! Aside from making unreasonable demands, women are understandably also very dangerous! Whilst on the run with Laura, Mr Priestley very aptly thinks that: ‘There was certainly one person at their table who required all the protection that could be got, but it was not the one at his side…’ Yet for this reader there is not much anxiety held for Mr Priestley’s fate, (a fate which is brought into being by his pride), and in fact his squirming and uncomfortableness, as his adventure becomes too much for him, is rather entertaining. Perhaps Berkeley want to make us into sadistic readers? (Mild ones of course.)
If we were being kind, it might be argued that there’s a sort of response to ‘the Young Adventurer’ motivating this: the Bright Young Thing meeting a Dashing Man/Woman and being swept in Exciting Adventure. There’s never any peril, they always survive, always fall in love, always end up happy, and it could be that he wished to explore this notion with characters who aren’t so cookie-cutter in how they fit these expectations. But it feels very tired very quickly, and the increasing escalation into the bizarre world this inhabits renders, as I say, too much analysis meaningless.
To bring our discussion on Berkeley and his gender politics to a close, I think we should take a look at the ending, which in some ways turns everything upside down…
Earlier passages in the text may make you think Berkeley prefers a subjugated woman, but his ending defies such wishes and shows Cynthia, who is married to Guy, (a principal mover in the prank), is the character who is really in control in the book. It is true that she lets her husband, brother and their friends commit their prank and then continue it once the police enter the scene. But when she feels it has gone far enough and that there could be irrevocable consequences, she begins to work her magic behind the scenes and it is she who orchestrates everyone’s ending, making sure the pranksters get a taste of their own medicine. It was this that put me in mind of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; that sense of havoc and chaos eventually brought to a standstill by outside intervention, after some difficult times for those concerned.
Yes, there’s certainly a sense of whimsy escalating out of control – havoc by accident, as Georges Simenon would have it – and then sharply curbed once it’s all gone a little too far, and that isn’t unlike the sudden realisation one gets before waking from a dream. And, in fact, there’s about the same level of consequences, which bothered me more than I expected.
That’s interesting, what sort of consequences would you have preferred for any of the protagonists? (Though given Berkeley’s lack of enthusiasm for marriage, perhaps matrimony was the worst fate he could devise for Mr Priestley…)
Ha. The idea of consequences doesn’t really ever apply in this sort of book, I feel. We always go into a novel of detection knowing that the detective will unravel it, that order will be restored. Indeed, the only time consequences seem to matter are when there are none – when a killer is allowed to walk free – which is a discussion for another point and time.
What would I have preferred? Berkeley is such an arch ironist at times that it seems a shame he makes no hay from the opening pages in which Mr. Priestley is being berated for never changing…and yet at the end of the book apart from having a jolly exciting time nothing else has really changed. His friends will be terribly smug at having gotten him married off, and they’re all back where they started, so we’re in a consequence and change vacuum which is pretty much exactly where we started…
One thing we’ve not quite touched upon yet when looking at the way genre-wise Berkeley borrows from other writers such as Buchan, is how in amongst this he is equally exploring how far he can go with the notion of murder as a game. What are your thoughts on this?
If it is murder as a game, it’s a pale shade of the gamesmanship he brought to The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) two years later. I’d probably come down more on the side of this being a bit of a jolly jaunt rather than an outright game – it feels too inconsequential given the game playing he’d exhibit in his Iles books and the likes of The Second Shot (1930) with its “murder during a game” framing, and there’s really no plan behind the scheme in-universe beyond “make him think he’s killed someone”. It’s no more than a light thriller, very light and not very thrilling. However, since you raised it, I assume you disagree…!
A little… yes. For me the murder as a game begins when Doyle and Guy realise they both share the same obsession in true crime. Of course poor George is forced to listen, as one of the guys…
‘For a time George listened with interest, for murders, dash it, are interesting, say what you like. Then he listened with less interest, for murders, hang it, are a bit what-you-might-call boring, taken in mass…’
It is from the depths of boredom that George sparks off the suggestion of trying an experiment. Yet I think their plans do become and are more extensive than a mere scheme to get someone to believe they have killed someone. Watching the psychological effect this lie has on Priestley is highly important to them, so it is ironic when their plan boomerangs back towards themselves and it is their own feelings and attitudes which become the most observed. The judges and the players in their game often have their roles reversed, sometimes several times. It is indeed the joke which comes back to bite them. Very much their own fault though, for extending their game towards the police. Their “game” reaches quite ridiculous proportions, but then other people’s unintentional or intentional actions make it too hard to back track. In some ways the American title of the novel, The Amateur Crime, hints at the game element, as they go into playing the charade with great gusto, adding in many a penny dreadful concept, yet then realise they have to maintain the subterfuge with all the wildly improbably features they conjured up.
See, this is one the most enjoyable things about being able to discuss these books without having to edge around details, because while I don’t entirely agree with that assessment I can completely see where you’re coming from. Berkeley was so keen to poke holes in the expectations of genre fiction in his more successful works that he couldn’t help but take an almost sardonic third-person narrator role at times to point out where the poking was occurring. While there’s none of that here – possibly on account of his callowness as an author – and for my money he really began to develop that element of his writing with The Silk Stocking Murders (1928) the following year, I can’t deny that elements of what you raise above could well be the seeds of what he’d go on to become at his best.
Maybe this is to Berkeley what The Blind Barber (1934) was to John Dickson Carr: a not entirely successful novel whose real success is in how it failed and what that failure taught the author about what they were trying to do.
One criticism which has been thrown at this book, which has some basis perhaps, is that it runs a little too long. In fact this book started out as a short story called ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ [published in a magazine in March 1927]. I’ve not read this story, but do you think the premise of Mr Priestley’s Problem should have stayed as or may have even worked better as a short story, rather than a novel? It has even actually been turned into a stage play, first showing in 1928. Whilst I know it wasn’t the world’s best read for you, would you watch it?
Oh, it’s far too long, and I’ve also not read that story to compare them, but it’s interesting to note that the story was adapted for the stage (under various titles — Handcuffs for Two being, perhaps, the sobriquet that comes closest to the intended tone of the book). There is something of the drawing room farce about it that would work very well on the stage – that broad, sweeping tone, someone stopping to wink at the audience every so often…it’s probably a great night at the theatre, even if I found it a tiresome couple of evenings under the reading lamp.
I’m actually in two minds as to whether I would see any production of this, stage play or even a TV adaptation, as looking at the text from an adaptor’s point of view, I am all too worried it would become too much of a Carry On… production…