Berkeley was not always a favourite author of mine but the more I’ve read by him, the more I’ve come to appreciate what he was trying to do. Though in some ways I think this novel is one of transition from the earlier Sheringham mysteries to his later cases, which thankfully means Sheringham’s misogyny is under control, although there is a small jibe at female readers being more interested in the clothes of the female characters than in their personalities. Overall I would say this piece has a more dry writing style, in comparison to other novels by Berkeley I have read.
The tale begins with Roger Sheringham meeting Chief Inspector Moresby for lunch. Roger calls this ‘keeping in touch with Scotland Yard,’ whilst Scotland Yard see it more as ‘Mr Sheringham working the pump handle.’ Just as they are about to go for this aforementioned meal a case is phoned in: Adelaide Barnett is found in her top storey flat, murdered. She met her end at the hands of a string of rosary beads and it is quickly presumed to have been a burglary that has gone wrong. The police soon think they spot the work of a familiar crook, who is in their books and their investigation works to that end. Yet if you know Roger Sheringham at all, then you know that he will have to take issue with this theory and begins his own enquiries. But who will be right?
For those who enjoy to approach a mystery novel puzzle with a great deal of rumination and/or resemble chewing the cud like our bovine friends, then I think this one could be a winner. Before you imagine I hated this novel, (now what could have given you that idea?), I should say I did not. This is by no means my favourite by Berkeley, as there was a little too much theorising for my liking, yet I think the puzzle posed, included a number of interesting features: Rosary beads, which did not belong to the victim – so why were they used in the murder? And there is also the issue of the rope hanging from the flat window – was it used or not for the culprit’s exit? The police and Sheringham have different ideas on the crime, yet for each of them there are various pieces of information which refuse to fit into the pattern.
This novel is also a good example of a vintage mystery novels where you boggle at what they class old age as for a woman. Before we find out the victim’s name and age, we are repeatedly told she is ‘old’ and ‘elderly,’ yet get this, SHE’S ONLY 48! True she is a miser whose parsimonious behaviour leaves her undernourished but I still think the term ‘elderly’ a tad excessive.
Perhaps the sections which held my attention the most effectively where those between Roger Sheringham and his new secretary, Stella Barnett, who is indeed the niece of the victim. His introduction to her is quite amusing involving Roger lending her his vacuum cleaner. He is drawn to her due to how unusual her character is. Indeed he repeatedly points out how she is the beautiful, yet hugely unattractive. Whilst grappling with this paradox he also has to deal with the consequences of hiring her; her efficiency and lack of interest and response to the case nearly driving him up the wall:
‘…his secretary did at least reach the stage of conversing with him as if he were a rational person and not some strange new brand of nitwit, as her manner before had seemed to imply.’
As a Watson she is somewhat of a dead end. Yet I loved all the more for that. Roger wants to test her mettle, take her down a peg or two, but by the denouement I would say she has the best of him still: ‘It is a sad thing when a male stronghold succumbs to female invasion’. Though don’t expect a quickly hashed together romance – Berkeley is better than that. This element of the book brings some much needed social comedy and vitality in terms of the characters as the suspects didn’t really sparkle for me.
A contemporary review from The Spectator said of this book that, ‘the first part is dull, the second interesting and the third thrilling,’ yet for me I think I would definitely swap the first two adjectives around as I did find the middle dragged a bit. The final solution has a tad too many flashes of inspiration in it, but I still found it very enjoyable and I was glad Berkeley managed to end on a high note with the tale. If you like a good Crofts novel then you should have no problem with this one, but if you’re new to Berkeley’s work I would perhaps look to one of his other titles.
Martin Edwards has also reviewed this title here, though readers should be warned that one of the comments on this post is interesting but definitely contains spoilers.