This is the next review in my recent spate of blogging on Anthony Berkeley’s work. Whilst A Puzzle in Poison (1938) by Berkeley’s standards was quite a conventional story, we are back to the unconventional with this today’s read, which has the subtitle: ‘An extravaganza in Crime’. And this is indeed the case when Pat Doyle, his fiancé and her friends and relations decide to pull a prank on Doyle’s stick in the mud friend, Matthew Priestley. Priestley leads a very quiet and dull life until one night he comes across a young woman and piqued by his recent friend’s criticisms of him, decides to go along with her misunderstanding that he is someone else. This decision places him in quite the pickle when he ends up going along with this woman to burgle a blackmailer’s house, an event which leads to Priestley’s seemingly shooting him dead in defence. Of course from the get go we know this series of events are not quite what they seem, being part of Doyle and co.’s practical joke to make Priestley think he has murdered a man. Yet we as readers know that events are going to get out of hand, beginning with the arrival of a real policeman… Our irrepressible pranksters are not fazed though and the prank continues leading Priestley and his young female acquaintance to go on the run and the police become the latest victims of the joke, as Doyle and his friends add ever more layers to their fictitious crime. No reader will be surprised when the joke soon begins to turn against its creators and then the fun really begins…
Let’s begin with the positives. Berkeley is on top form with his characterisation, allowing you to feel sympathetic towards Priestley to begin with, but then enabling us to revaluate him later on and not see him as such a victim. There is also the endearing George Howard, a reluctant member of the prankster team, who it is hard not to feel sorry for, being put upon by his sisters for instance:
‘George would rather have had his house kept for him by a combination of Catherine de’ Medici and Lucrezia Borgia than by either of his sisters. George was the sort of person who likes to know where he is at any moment and has a rooted distaste for dwelling upon a volcano.’
Equally his lack of enthusiasm for criminology talk is so awfully sweet and funny and Berkeley really conveys his character through the narrative voice: ‘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…’
Berkeley writes really well in the comedy of errors style, creating an array of misunderstandings between the various characters, as they frequently keep turning the tables on each other. He also has a lot of fun (which the reader shares in) with playing around with thriller and fugitive on the run tropes, in ways that make it surprising that this story has not been adapted for film.
And now for the negative, one which is well known to readers familiar with Berkeley as a person as well as a writer. It is of course his gender politics. By and large such politics are given in a tongue in cheek manner. Overall I think it works quite well but there are times where the reader has to put up with some very condescending masculinity. Young women are invariably presented as handfuls and in need of handling (it’s not surprising that all of the men in this book are older than their female counterparts by a good few years). This need to subjugate women and for women to “find their match” is likely to be unsettling and uncomfortable for the modern reader (well this one anyways). However, I think what saved this book from therefore being an utterly horrific experience was that these moments are kept in check and are not allowed to overwhelm the narrative. I was very nervous about the ending and feared the direction it would be heading to, but like a pilot who at the last moment turns out of a nose dive, Berkeley equally does the same with his novel, delivering an ending which feels a lot fairer and even handed. Interesting as well is how you could argue that it is a female character who really orchestrates the ending of the book and the consequences which are meted out, which perhaps highlights Berkeley’s complex attitude towards women.
So on the whole I think this is an entertaining and hilarious novel by Berkeley and is another good example of the comic crime novel. Granted I didn’t always like the gender politics presented in the text but I think the limited amount of such humour and the way Berkeley saves his ending meant that the novel wasn’t irrevocably besmirched for me.
To end on a linguistic note I do have a query regarding a certain expression. At least four or five times Guy Nesbitt (one of Doyle’s friends) is said to be ‘stealing jam’. Now this phrase is not meant literally as the first instance takes place whilst his wife is getting ready for dinner and he has forgotten her eye colour: ‘I meant grey,’ said Mr. Guy Nesbitt, stealing jam.’ A couple of other examples are: ‘Guy, remembering his innocent curiosity on that point and the means he had taken to gratify it, began to laugh silently, stealing jam with every appearance of joyful guilt’ and ‘Guy began to steal jam with silent gusto.’ I’ve never come across this phrase before and was just wondering if anyone else had and what on earth it meant! Finally I think this is also the first novel I have read where the word ‘willy-nilly’ appears. It’s a phrase I’ve heard said but never seen in print before.
It’s not too hard to track down a copy of this book though you will have to spend £20+ (unlike me), to get hold of a copy. Not sure whether this story is available on e-readers or not yet.
N. B. Today’s read was originally published under the penname A. B. Cox and in the USA the title was The Amateur Crime.