Today’s review is a re-read for me, having first read it a couple of years ago. This was Berkeley’s first novel and I feel the dedication he includes to his father at the beginning is quite interesting in the aims it outlines. Firstly there is a stress on things being fair play in the story and looking back on the book I think he definitely achieves this. Another key issue for Berkeley is creating a fallible sleuth, disliking their antonym:
‘I have tried to make the gentleman who eventually solves the mystery behave as nearly as possible as he might be expected to do in real life. That is to say, he is very far removed from a sphinx and he does make a mistake or two occasionally. I have never believed very much in those hawk-eyed, tight-lipped gentry, who pursue their silent and inexorable way straight to the heart of things without ever once overbalancing or turning aside after false goals…’
For those reading who aren’t familiar with the plot, it involves Roger Sheringham, (Berkeley’s serial amateur sleuth), and his friend, Alexander Grierson, staying at Layton Court, which is being rented by their wealthy host Victor Stanworth. Things seem to be going well as Alexander becomes engaged to another guest, Barbara. Yet this state of bliss does not last long when one morning, Barbara breaks the engagement for no reason and then later on Victor is found shot dead in his library; the windows and door locked on the inside. To nearly everyone this is a puzzling but clear case of suicide. Of course Roger does not agree and so begins a frantic day and a half of sleuthing and ferreting out the truth, going down a number of wrong investigative avenues in the process.
Although this book has its unconventional aspects, playing around with the Watson figure and at times being a send up of the country house murder mystery, especially in terms of its clues, I think the structure of the book is less creative. It is heavily reliant on elongated discussions or monologues between Roger and his friend. Interaction with the other household members is much more limited. Whilst two characters can bear the weight of a full novel, when done well, I’m not so sure it is used as effectively here. It lacked a bit of sparkle and was a bit mundane in parts. The narrative definitely picks up once Roger thinks he has sussed the how of the crime and moves onto the who and the why. I think in later and more successful novels by Berkeley he avoids using such a similar structure. After all extended theorising by an amateur sleuth is always a risky narrative choice in my opinion and is quite an issue in Robin Forsythe’s mystery novels. However puzzle focused mystery fans will probably not find this structural choice much of an issue, as it does play into the fair play aspect of the story.
Having criticised Berkeley’s first effort, lets turn to the positives. It may not a perfect first novel, but it does give the reader a taste of the heights Berkeley would later reach in his writing career, revealing his ability to drop bombshells at the end of chapters and generally make the reader’s jaw drop. It also shows his playful handling of the “rules” and of societal conventions and morality. Equally it has the amusing insult of, ‘sponge-headed parrot.’
Whilst in some of Roger’s cases he is quite unbearable, in this one he is not so and there is much humour at his expense. Even in the first pages it is shown that his deductions are not all what they are cracked up to be. Berkeley does write a first class fallible sleuth.
So not perfect, but still an enjoyable mystery in the classic mould.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Chandelier