Even though — or perhaps, because — I’m a fan of Anthony Berkeley Cox’s work, I approach him with some trepidation. At his best you get the innovative brilliance of The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), while among his failures is the repetitious turgidity of The Second Shot (1930) or Not to be Taken (1938). Thankfully, The Wintringham Mystery (1927), originally serialised in the Daily Mirror in 1926 before being reworked as a novel, falls squarely in the former camp: a witty, playful, brisk Country House puzzler bafflingly out of print for nearly a century that’s so good it would justify a full reprint of the man’s work on its own.
The staging is interesting enough to warrant attention: having inherited, and then burned through, a modest income, young Stephen Munro is forced to actually look for a job of work, and ends up as a footman at Wintringham Hall in the service of the elderly, austere Lady Susan Carey. In a development that would see itself repeated two decades later, there is a shortage of trained servants, and young ‘William’ (“We always call the footman here William,” he is informed by the inscrutable butler Mr. Martin) must consider himself very lucky to have landed any sort of position at all. Said luck seems cursed, however, when it emerges that a party is being held for some of the younger generation that weekend, and among those present is Freddie Venables, Lady Susan’s only nephew and an associate of Stephen’s from his schooldays.
Plenty of comings and goings — including the appearance of Pauline Mainwaring, the young lady Stephen had set his cap at, and the departure of Cicely Vernon whose luggage says she’s going to Folkestone but who buys a railway ticket for Brighton — result in Cicely returning to the house just as Freddie is trying out some witchcraft as a post-dinner entertainment and, one incantation in a darkened room with guarded exits later, Cicely disappears again. A search of the room, and then of the grounds, fails to reveal her, and slowly the sense that while the vanishing is “a very cleverly contrived joke on Cicely’s part…to keep it up past midnight was prolonging even the best of jokes a little unduly” begins to give way to the idea that something might be seriously wrong after all.
The central impossible vanishing is decently phrased, univocal enough to engage the brain while presenting possibilities for Stephen to explore that, given the diversity of options discussed, feels almost like a dry run for the six-solution masterpiece of The Poisoned Chocolates Case two years later. The one flaw I can raise is that the answer Berkeley settles on doesn’t feel inevitable or authoritative — I had another one worked out, so when I’m a famous crime writer I’ll hopefully have the chance to add that in an afterword — and the cynical among you might suggest that, given there was £15,000 up for grabs, Berkeley simply tried to work out a solution no-one had sent in so as not to bankrupt himself or the Mirror Edgar Wallace-style. Things are complicated by the fact that there are, of course, about six other Dark Schemes going on at the same time — this must be why I never get invited to parties, because I’m never Up To Something — but the plot-lines are clear and some of the payoffs (“Mr. Munro!”) handled very well indeed.
Let that £15,000 first prize sink in for a moment. Tony Medawar’s characteristically thorough and engaging introduction does a great job providing context for the serialisation and the competition, framing it around the famous story of Agatha Christie submitting an incorrect (and now sadly lost) solution under her husband’s name. It’s incredible enough that a newspaper would serialise a story of this type in 15 parts, but to then offer that sort of money bespeaks of the sheer popularity of the form and the sad decline in interest recent decades have observed. And then consider that The Mystery of Norman’s Court (1923) by John Chancellor, another impossible crime, had already been serialised as a competition three years earlier with a staggering £60,000 first prize. Locked room puzzles with massive payouts in the newspaper? Better days!
Berkeley is at his wittiest in typifying his characters, which I usually take to be a good early indicator of how the book is going to turn out. When we’re told early on that “one always had to look twice around a room before realizing that Miss Rivers was in it”, or that the manner of Henry Kentisbeare’s costumery was “a whole-time occupation” to which “he was able to devote proper time…by consistently living on the resources of his friends”, I felt myself relaxing into the comforting arms of Berkeley’s charm. Sure, the era’s understanding of an ideal marriage hasn’t aged well, but it’s difficult to mind amidst ‘Baby’ Cullompton “[standing] about a good deal in extremely graceful postures”, the realisation that “one could not stem the current of Colonel Uffculme’s reminiscences with a mere sigh”, and this wonderful exchange between Kentisbeare and the 19-going-on-40 Annette Agnew:
“Don’t try to be cynical, Henry,” said Annette frankly. “It’s too frightfully unoriginal.”
“It is getting a bit cheap,” Henry admitted.
Berkeley also writes extremely well away from his comical asides, revealing himself even this early on as something much more than a mere genre and social farceur. You feel his questing, innovative soul in the sheer number of tropes ticked off as things progress, with a good motivation behind the use of practically all of them; and for all the obvious clues thrown in your face there are more than a few dead ends and misunderstandings that get dealt with through varying degrees of alacrity. Stephen is moved to lament his tendency to jump to obvious conclusions, and the way that said flaw results in one guest revealing their criminal past in an unembarrassed, almost resigned manner is hearteningly mature. Later in his career, Berkeley would at times lose sight of the requirement of his books being enjoyable in the pursuit of some esoteric notion within the genre, but here he’s keenly on point throughout, and it’s a joy to see him so fresh and earnest.
After waiting so long to read this, I am over the moon that it turned out to be such a delight. Hard upon this reissue at the end of 2021, the British Library republished Murder in the Basement (1932), and through their auspices Jumping Jenny, a.k.a. Dead Mrs. Stratton (1933) is being reprinted this week. If someone wants to add a reprint of The Piccadilly Murder (1929) to those ranks, Berkeley may finally start to get the credit he deserves as among the most insightful proponents of the detective story. There’s an argument that those four books plus The Poisoned Chocolates Case might well represent everything you need to know about the detective novel in the early 1930s, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, simply enjoy the view.
John @ Pretty Sinister: As one might expect for such an early detective novel it’s teeming with conventions and tropes that even in this early time were probably considered tiresome or predictable. Yet typical of Berkeley he subverts most of these conventions and employs fanciful and innovative ideas in his plotting that makes the book a corker of a mystery. Notably, for much of the book there is no murder! And when a violent death occurs — once again typical of this inventive writer — one never knows if the victim suffered an accident, murder or committed a weird type of suicide until the final chapter when all is explained.
Martin Edwards: It’s a book of legendary rarity, but I am afraid I think this is a case where obscurity is deserved. Really, the changes to the story are largely padding, and the mystery of Cicely’s fate is dragged out in a way that tempts one to skip to the end. I’m so glad I have had the chance to satisfy my curiosity by reading this particular forgotten novel, but I’m afraid the final verdict is that those who are less fortunate are not really missing out. The books that appeared under the Berkeley and Iles names are infinitely better.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: [W]hile the detective story that follows is well written and amusing enough, the weight of the plot does not justify the length of the story. The Wintringham Mystery is a short story stretched out to book length. A very well done piece of stretching, but not even Berkeley could disguise that most of the story was padding. Quality padding. But padding nonetheless.