This is my 6th Anthony Berkeley review this year, making him one of my most frequently blogged authors this year.
For those interested in how interwar authors perceived the genre they were writing in, this book will be of special interest, as it opens with a letter from Berkeley to A. D. Peters, addressing the question of the future of detective story. Given that it is only 1930 when Berkeley wrote this, it is quite amusing to see him wondering where things would go next. He suggests two options quoting from a detective fiction reviewer. I tried googling the quote but could not find the originator of the statement:
‘As to technique, it appears that there are two directions in which the intelligent novelist is at present trying to develop…: he may make experiments with the telling of his plot, tell it backwards, or sideways, or in bits; or he may try to develop character and atmosphere.’
He recognises how his previous work focused on the former, but that this story is his ‘attempt at the latter’ and he goes on to say that:
‘it is towards the latter that the best of the new detective writing energies are being directed […] I personally am convinced that the days of the old crime puzzle pure and simple, relying entirely upon plot and without any added attractions of character, style, or even humour, are, if not numbered, at any rate in the hands of the auditors…’
I think his warning is a little premature, as the 30s and 40s saw further great puzzle mysteries. He is correct though in emphasising the importance of characters and character psychology which he believes will become the new puzzle factor or element as opposed to ‘a puzzle of time, place, motive and opportunity.’ It was interesting to come back to these ideas/goals/descriptors once I read the book as I don’t think Berkeley entirely loses the classic puzzle element in this book which has maps, clues and time tables. Equally I still think he experiments with how he tells the story using a range of text types and an unreliable or slippery narrator. But whilst he still uses familiar tools in some respects, he definitely does a lot with his characters, creating a whole fishmonger’s shop out the red herrings he pulls out. Further thoughts on the mystery novel can also be found within the story itself, in the beginning of Cyril Pinkerton’s manuscript, where he points out all the places he thinks mystery writers are going wrong and later on he continues to criticise the genre with its tension between interesting and believability.
But before I discuss the book any further it would probably be a good idea if I gave you some idea of what the book is about. It begins with a newspaper report informing us of the death of Eric Scott-Davies during a house party at Minton Deeps Farm, hosted by mystery writer John Hillyard and his wife, Ethel. The party planned to stage a fake murder for Hillyard’s mystery writer friends to investigate, but unfortunately a real one transpires instead on the way back to the house when two shots are heard over a few minutes and one of the guests, Pinkerton – the fake murder’s murderer, finds the fake victim, very much a real one. This account is followed by a police report which shows that not everything is as it seems and that the police are far from sanguine by the version of events presented. The majority of the book comes from a manuscript written by Pinkerton looking at the events leading up to the crime and then what happened afterwards. Things soon get difficult for him though as the police favour him as their prime suspect. Circumstantial evidence fuels this, as well as a murder motive which has been produced by a chain of events. It doesn’t help that everyone else in the house party also thinks he did it. This is despite the fact that the victim’s ex-lover, his ex-lover’s husband, his short changed cousin and his new romantic/financial target are all in the same group. It is at this point that Pinkerton sends an urgent telegram to Roger Sheringham and it is from this point that Berkeley twists and turns his plot and characters until his readers are thoroughly foxed…
If Berkeley’s name was expunged from the book and a reader had to guess who had written it, I think the author’s identity would still have been easy to guess, as this narrative has many of the hallmarks which characterise Berkeley’s work. Firstly there is his slippery use of narrators, as throughout Pinkerton’s manuscript you are unsure how far you can trust him. He is confident of his abilities but it is clear he lacks a certain amount of self-awareness. He says that ‘the average human being is wearisomely transparent,’ yet he misses quite a few obvious things about his fellow guests. Will this affect how he sees events? Is this short sightedness all a pretence? Equally the reader is wondering whether he could be killer? After all Pinkerton does say he is trying to write up the crime from the criminal’s point of view. But is this just a red herring? Or a double red herring? (N.B. I’m not going to tell you).
The second hallmark of a Berkeley novel is its ambiguous and complicated depiction of relationships between men and women. Initially the reader is subjected to an uncomfortable scene between Pinkerton, (acknowledged bachelor who has a cynical nature towards women) and his hostess Ethel. We have Ethel confirming that women love to be dominated by rogues and bad hats, given that they ‘appeal[…] directly to every primitive instinct we women have; and we’ve a good deal more, my dear Cyril, than men of your type ever realise.’ Pinkerton concludes it all by saying that ‘one of the many things that Ethel and I have in common is the profound scorn in which she holds her own sex.’ So yeah, fun reading. Thankfully though this scene is an isolated incidence and given the events which Pinkerton goes on to experience I think his views to an extent might shift (even if Berkeley’s haven’t). Pinkerton has hopes of transforming a certain lady’s ‘untamed wildness’ and have fun afternoons teaching her about stamp collecting and identifying rare types of moss, but from what the manuscript suggests these dreams are not wholly fulfilled, (one hopes for the lady’s sake more than anything else). The subduing and taming of women is perhaps one of the less pleasant hallmarks of Berkeley’s work (and Philip Macdonald’s for that matter), but thankfully is kept in check here. Incidentally a romance element in this book between Pinkerton and another is a close parallel to another romantic coupling in an earlier Berkeley novel: Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927). However whilst this latter novel is fun and light hearted, I think Berkeley takes a number of elements from this earlier story and reuses them in a much darker and cynical way in today’s read.
Given the emphasis Berkeley places on characters, I think it is fair to say that he does a really good job in that respect. Often a reviewer might say about a story that characters are not what they seem, but I think Berkeley takes this feature to a whole new level, especially with Pinkerton who is hard to pin down and have consistent feelings towards. At times you’ll feel sympathy for him for instance, whilst at other moments you’ll want to kick him, like Sheringham does. Surprisingly with Pinkerton’s presence, Sheringham comes across as a much more pleasant character. Sylvia, Eric’s ex-lover is also another highlight of the story and is a wonderfully Machiavellian figure for a time.
So lots to enjoy with this book. Great way of introducing the crime, (in effect by using three different lens, without boring the reader), great choice of characters in the main, great choice of narrator and of course like all strong Berkeley novels, this story has the most important Berkeley hallmark, that of pulling twist after twist, yet never losing the reader for a moment. The solution has the fourth Berkeley novel hallmark by being unorthodox. I thought I had guessed the ultimate culprit but alas mid patting my back I found I was completely wrong. I think one of the things which perhaps dragged my rating down of this book was the slow pacing in the second half of the book and there were spattering of dry patches of writing.
JJ at The Invisible Event blog reviewed this one last year and didn’t seem to take to it as much as I did, as you can see here. So it’ll be interesting to see how he takes this review…