Regular readers of this blog and of my more recent Berkeley reviews will know that I’m far from being the world’s biggest fan of Roger Sheringham. His irritating personality and attitudes are deliberate but that doesn’t make them anymore tolerable. However I decided to give him another go. Berkeley’s humour is apparent even from the contents page, listing his quite (albeit darkly) humorous, chapter titles, such as ‘Someone ought to be murdered,’ which is fittingly followed by ‘Someone is murdered’. There are also chapters entitled ‘Odour of rat’ and ‘The Case against Roger Sheringham.’
The novel mostly takes place during one evening (and night) at Ronald Stratton’s murderer and victim party. Guests are to be in fancy dress, coming either as famous victims or killers. Stratton has also gone to the trouble of rigging up a fake gallows on his roof, by which three figures are hanging: two jumping Jacks and one jumping Jenny. We all know what is going to happen at some point or other and we even can safely bet on who the victim will be – Edna Stratton, who is the wife of Ronald’s younger brother David. As the party progresses this exhibitionist of a woman provides nearly everyone in the room with a reason to kill her; malicious gossip and threats to write to the Kings Proctor, are but two examples. Throughout the party, ever trying to hold centre place in everyone’s attention, Edna threatens to commit suicide, in between drinking heavily. That is why it is no surprise when later on, after a search party has commenced, she is found swinging from the gallows. The reader though who is a silent witness to some of her final moments knows that this was no suicide.
In a way I think this story is a send up of the inverted mystery, as Sheringham reaches new heights in fallibleness, whereby his intended subtle probing of one witness leaves them firmly convinced that he is the killer. Whilst he is not interested in assisting the police, he soon becomes keen to prove his own innocence in the eyes of his rather reluctant and cynical Watson. Given the nature of the death there is not much physical evidence to analyse and due to the strong desire to squash any notions of it being murder there is little overt interviewing of the suspects by Sheringham. Normally this would mean a rather poor read, as surely you ask, what does Sheringham have to go on? Yet to Berkeley’s credit he does make it work and this story could be also seen as a variation on the mystery he sets out in The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), as Sheringham creates a variety of cases against different people. His attempts to cover up evidence is entertaining to watch because invariably his attempts only lead to further problems and difficulties, as the police are far from dim in this story. The Sheringham of this novel is far from confident, which actually made him a much more likeable individual. The book is quite novel in that it ends with an inquest, with all the characters anxious to know what verdict will be given. I cottoned on to part of the ending but not all of it; perhaps the simplicity of the plot used meant that the number of twists it could provide was limited. Berkeley very wisely kept this story short, as if it had been much longer the pacing would have suffered.
The opening of the novel worked well in my opinion, as Berkeley begins with Carr gothic-like tones:
‘From the triple gallows three figures swung lazily, one woman and two men. Only a gentle creaking of their ropes sounded in the quiet night. A horn lantern, perched above the triangle of the cross-pieces, swayed in the slight wind, causing the three shadows to leap and prance on the ground in a grotesque dance of death, like some macabre travesty of a slow-motion film in silhouette.’
Yet this atmosphere is immediately undermined by Sheringham’s comment of ‘Very nice,’ and Stratton’s ‘It is rather charming, isn’t it?’
In the opening chapter marriage and divorce cropped up quite a lot and I did wonder whether Mrs Lefroy was a mouth piece for his own opinions:
‘What I think is, that our marriage-laws are all on the wrong lines. Marriage oughtn’t to be easy and divorce difficult; it ought to be just the other way about. A couple ought to have to go up before a judge and say: ‘Please, we’ve lived together for two years now and we’re quite certain we’re suited to each other. We’ve got our witnesses here to swear that we’re terribly fond of each other and hardly ever quarrel, and we like the same things; and we’re both quite healthy. We’re certain we know our own minds, so please, can’t we get married now?’
The only criticism I would have of the first 20-25 pages is that the guests at the party are either introduced by their fancy dress identity or by their real name. This did make things rather confusing, but thankfully a guest list was forthcoming, even if it was ham fistedly added in. One thing I think it would have been nice for Berkeley to have made more of was Ronald’s occupation as a detective story writer. Yet other than the odd comment this element is never really used in the plot, which seemed a shame given Berkeley’s ability to write comic metafictional comments.
So overall an entertaining and unconventional tale by Berkeley, which at moments carried a flavour of his Francis Iles-style. In a plot which at times may seem familiar it is enjoyable to see Berkeley adding elements of the unexpected. The toning down of Sheringham’s less than pleasing qualities also contributed to the enjoyment of the reading experience – a much less secure Sheringham, makes for a more appealing protagonist. Thankfully this is one of Berkeley’s novels which is not too hard to get a hold of.
Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927)
The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)
The Piccadilly Murder (1929)
A Puzzle in Poison (1938)