#855: The Wintringham Mystery, a.k.a. Cicely Disappears (1927) by Anthony Berkeley [a.p.a. by A. Monmouth Platts]

Wintringham Mystery

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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.

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See also

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.

28 thoughts on “#855: The Wintringham Mystery, a.k.a. Cicely Disappears (1927) by Anthony Berkeley [a.p.a. by A. Monmouth Platts]

  1. “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.”

    Doesn’t he have that credit? I thought Berkeley was one of the few Twenties writers who *was* admired before the 2010s renaissance. Poisoned Chocolates, Trial and Error, and the first two Iles books have been considered landmarks since at least the Seventies / Eighties, and Keating and Symons wrote glowingly of ABC. And a lot of Berkeley was in print – Craig & Cadogan (Hogarth) chose Jumping Jenny (Dead Mrs Stratton); Penguin reprinted Silk Stocking; Black Dagger reprinted Top Storey Murder; and then House of Stratus reprinted almost the lot!

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    • I was thinking more of credit beyond just our little coterie of nerds and GAD fans: with the BLCC range doing so damn well in terms of numbers, Berkeley’s stature might rise among the casual fan in the same way that lots of people apparently find much to admire in ECR Lorac or John Bude.

      You, me, and other sensible, well-read people already know of his influence. Now it’s time to spread the word further afield…!

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    • Doesn’t he have that credit? I thought Berkeley was one of the few Twenties writers who *was* admired before the 2010s renaissance.

      I thought Berkeley had faded into obscurity until House of Stratus reprinted him in the early 2000s. Berkeley was probably somewhat known to readers who were already Golden Age fans, but (affordable) copies were not always easy to come by back then. Even today some titles remain obscure (please reprint Top Storey Murder) You probably noticed yourself the authors and books being discussed today are a little different from those in the days of JDC message board and the Yahoo GAD group. It was not until the 2010s renaissance that Berkeley got the appreciation he deserved outside of our little circle of dedicated fanatics.

      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the book, JJ, but don’t you think five-stars is too much for what’s essentially a humorous, lightweight mystery. I can understand if you gave the story three-stars with an extra for sheer enjoyment, but five is setting people up to be disappointed. Would you give five-stars to The Layton Court Mystery? But, hey, feel free to disagree. 🙂

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      • If I thought five stars was too much, I’d’ve given it less, wouldn’t I? 🙂 This is what I love about books — we read the same words, and we get entirely different experiences from them.

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    • I remember loving Jumping Jenny after being thoroughly nonplussed by Not to be Taken, but we’re also going back about 20 years in my memory there. I found a Hogarth reprint of JJ (as Dead Mrs. Stratton) about a week before the BL reprint was announced, so I’m very intrigued to return to it and see how it stands up.

      However, The Picaddilly Murder stands firm in my mind as a wonderful mystery, so fingers crossed someone has an eye on bringing that out too. Who’d’ve ever imagined so much Berkeley doing the rounds in 2022?!

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  2. Glad to see another review on this title and to see you enjoyed it so much. It’s nice when we both like a book. It’s a shame we didn’t have this title for book group rather than the other one! Murder in the Basement is my second favourite Berkeley so I am looking forward to seeing reviews of that one appear online soon. I also enjoyed Jumping Jenny a lot – Roger truly shoots himself in the foot in this one and it is amusing to watch.

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    • I received Murder in the Basement for Christmas, and am looking forward to reading it — not having encountered it before, I’m intrigued to see where it falls on Berkeley’s scale of esoteric to amazing.

      Jumping Jenny/Dead Mrs. Stratton is one I remember very fondly, not least because of how starkly it contrasted with the tedious Not to be Taken, and I (naturally) found a second-hand copy before learning of the BL reprint…but that, too, shall feature in The Invisible Event’s plans for 2022.

      Here’s to more agreement as the year wears on!

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  3. I must admit that I am pretty ignorant of Berkeley’s work, though I do hope to appease the GAD gods with The Poisoned Chocolates Case , er, soon…? This sounds like a fun one, though I must admit a bias of mine when it comes to Golden Age mysteries (but if it prompts discussion isn’t that a good thing). I really do seem to prefer the novels which feature a series detective to the point that I think the series detective is a foundational element of the genre. I know all of the GAD writers dropped their lead investigators throughout their careers and often this lead to some of their most innovative and boundary-pushing works. But, given the choice between the adventures of a one-time sleuth and the continued adventures of Poirot, Fell, Wimsey, et. al., I’ll take the celebrated sleuth each time. Can’t really justify this much: it’s not like those characters show much growth throughout their books and reading their stories in order is rarely a necessity, it’s just a personal thing. But, then again, I love And Then There Were None , <Crooked House , and I am starting The Red Right Hand today so I guess I’m just a hypocrite?

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    • It’s entirely possible to prefer series detectives and still enjoy standalone mysteries — hell, I’m probably the same, now I think about it.

      The fun of a standalone is that anything is on the table — Poirot would obviously be safe from suspicion in And Then There Were None, so the book is infinitely better without a series detective — but there’s also the peril of not knowing how ingenious your detective avatar is and so how complex or brilliant the plot will turn out to be. I had this exact experience watching Knives Out: we don’t know how brilliant the character of Benoit Blanc is, and whether he’s actually going to solve the case, because we have no history with him, and that adds a tension which, if I’m honest, probably slightly detracted from the film for me. But then I tend to overthink these things, where traditional-seeming mysteries are concerned 🙂

      I will say that the way Stephen’s status falls and rises in this plays a large part in the enjoyment to be taken from it, and would only be attainable with a series sleuth were this their first case. But that’s a discussion for after you’ve read it…

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  4. Looking forward to your reaction, I moved this to the front of my TBR pile, and both have more than lived up to expectations. A few chapters in, I too admire how Berkeley is handling the always-challenging introduction of The Large Cast with wit, clarity, and not a single uninteresting sentence. And I agree that The Poisoned Chocolates Case was the likely recipient of lessons learned by his avoiding the Four Just Men trap. Admittedly based on only what I’ve read so far, I have the sense that if this were a modern pastiche it would be greeted as an exemplar with calls for Stephen’s return.

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    • I’m pleased that the review — and, more importantly, the book itself — lived up to hopes; the blog’snot performing its intended purpose if the people reading it are not entertained.

      I couldn’t help but wonder if Berkeley learned from Wallace’s misfortune with TFJM, and if that in turn informed the “multiple possible solutions” outcome of some of his works. I would love for this to be opened up as a competition of sorts, to allow others to submit new solutions, because it really does feel like Berkeley was seeing what he could put in place and then explain in as many ways as possible.

      As to Stephen…I wonder, and this ties into Nick’s point about preferring series sleuths, if he’s a bit too dull to support a second book, y’know? The situation he finds himself in, having squandered a fortune and forced to work as household staff, is fascinating and a wonderful riff on the “unsuspected detective”, but I don’t know what I could say about him that didn’t relate directly to the situation he was in.

      I’m aware that you’re not saying Stephen should return, but your comment about potentially modern calls for a reprise — with which I don’t disagree — and Nick’s comment yesterday just brought this together in my mind. Berkeley needed a forgettable protagonist for a newspaper story, and I’d say he definitely created one 😄

      Hope you’ve continued to enjoy this as you’ve read on. Let me know if how much you disagree with my final findings when you’re done…!

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  5. I’m thrilled by how available Berkeley is suddenly becoming. Rewind a few years and you could pretty much only pick up The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Trial and Error, Malice Aforethought, and Before the Fact for a reasonable price. Yes, other books were out there, but you had to be lucky to snag a physical copy for less than $50.

    A few years later and my shelves have filled out with The Silk Stockings Murders, Murder in the Basement, The Wintringham Mystery, The Piccadilly Mystery, Dead Mrs Stratton, The Layton Court Mystery, and The Avenging Chance. Ok, those last four books aren’t exactly easy to come by (Dead Mrs Stratton/Jumping Jenny soon will be), but I’m patient and I also have received some nice gifts (thanks Santa!), but you get my point. I suppose I should also pick up The Wychford Poisoning Case while it’s still easily available.

    Anyway, unless I’m missing a title or two, I think that only leaves a half dozen or so novels that you’d still have to pay through the teeth for. Good times. Now do the same for Henry Wade…

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    • All you need to hope now is that, when you read them, you still feel enthusiastic about Berkeley’s work 😄 He’s doubtless one of the most important writers ever to try the genre, but he’s not always easy to read — either for his somewhat retrograde attitudes or, more often, his tendency to produce something focussed on an entirely esoteric point in the tropes of the genre and then really ride it out to the fullest extent.

      At his best, he’s magnificent, however.

      And, yes, someone please reprint Henry Wade!!

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      • Berkeley is firmly on that list of authors that I need to make more time to read. See also Henry Wade, Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, Philip MacDonald… plus I haven’t even cracked into the few John Rhode books that I’ve collected.

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  6. Howdy, JJ. Great to see you back in the saddle.

    Negotiating the murky, mazy world of GAD, with death (by boredom) and danger (of mediocrity) lying in wait around every other corner, has been a less assured proposition without you lighting my way, though the usual suspects (Brad, Kate, TomCat, Aidan, etc) meant I was far from being left without recourse.

    TWM has been on my radar for a while. I’ve been oddly finicky in selecting what will be only my second outing with Berkeley. As though I’m keen to preserve the delectable taste left by The Poisoned Chocolates Case in my mouth (uhh…) , and wishing to avoid souring it at all costs with a less than stellar follow-up. A five star rating from you has done much for its chances of being that second outing, though the premise of Jumping Jenny (I’m highly fond of the costumed party/masquerade ball trope in GAD) and newfound availability still makes it the slight favourite ahead of The Piccadilly Murder, which hasn’t yet been favoured with a reprint.

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    • From that selection, you’re pretty spoiled. If Berkeley is going to work for you, those are the books to be reading early on. Whatever you pick, it’ll give you — I’d suggest — a good idea of how much you’re going to want to read ol’ ABC going forward.

      Thanks for the welcome back, too. It’s nice to be doing this again, even if I really did need to step away from it for a little while.

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  7. I enjoyed the set-up with Stephen as come down in the world officer class forced to play the footman but that didn’t last long enough for me. It’s something that’s done very well in Something Fresh by P. G. Wodehouse (a very different genre I know). Overall I’m with Martin Edwards as quoted above. But I am still excited to have 7 Berkeley’s lined up for the coming months and I like the opposing but I assume unrelated titles of Murder in the Basement and Top Storey Murder.

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        • Thank heavens they stopped there. Biggles Flies West-by-South-South-west doesn’t feel quite as compelling.

          Or was Johns implying that Biggles can only turn through a 90° angle, like a sort of avionic Derek Zoolander?

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  8. After happily riding this to the end, I too see a Wodehouse influence on Berkeley–though perhaps more in the former’s theatrical side.

    I take the broad character and incident here as Berkeley’s equating his newspaper readers with the audience of a light musical comedy–with the accidental-detective trope facilitating not only a potential lead romantic coupling, but also giving those readers more confidence to come up with their own solutions. (The repeated anti-Semitic trope definitely grates, however.)

    The slight whiff of underlined cliche is also part of this context, I think, and for me the relatively basic clues, red herrings, and solution work perfectly in making this one-off soufflé rise. So JJ, I’m definitely with you on this one!

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    • Yeah, I think you’ve summarised it nicely: this is giving a casual audience what they would have understood the genre to contain, with an appeal to popular romantic fiction along the way…indeed, what the genre started out as and, with serialisation in the likes of Cosmopolitan, what it would return to before its death 😄

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  9. Great point about the full-circle aspect–and no matter how well he handles those sort of commercial considerations, it’s understandable that they can prove off-putting, especially compared with the genre-busting of his other work.

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