In September Ben at The Green Capsule blog reviewed Berkeley’s Trial and Error (1937). Within this post he laments Berkeley’s lack of availability and in the comments remarks that ‘it’s interesting though how only a handful of his books receive any attention these days. I have to think that’s mainly due to negligence rather than talent – there’s no way all of those lesser known books just suck.’ It was at this juncture that I pointed out that at least one blog was waving the flag for Berkeley, (bound to be more I’m sure), having now reviewed 10 of his titles. This was, of course, a very silly thing to mention, as unsurprisingly I was challenged encouraged to do a ranking of the titles I had read. Regular readers of the blog will be aware of my inability/reluctance/aversion to making Top 10s and favourite lists, where the books have to be ranked in order of merit. It’s just stressful, and yes, I do tend to cheat by prefacing any lists I devise with the phrase: ‘in no particular order,’ or words to that effect. So, today’s list is something of a rarity as I have ranked the titles from worst to best, (in my opinion, of course!)
I have read 14 titles by Berkeley, but my list only includes 12 of these. Why, you ask? The two I have omitted, Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932), come from his Francis Iles penname and whilst I remember enjoying them a lot, I wouldn’t like to say where they would go in the list, without a re-read. So, in the end, I decided to leave them out. However, as and when I do re-read these two books, I will add them to my rankings, and the same of course goes to the titles I have yet to read. Currently on my TBR pile I have The Avenging Chance and Other Stories (2004), but I still have hopes of acquiring a copy of Panic Party (1934), Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927) and Cicely Disappears (1927). I am undecided as to whether I want to read As for the Woman (1939), (another title from the Iles penname) and warnings about The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926), make it another title I am unlikely to buy. Disappointingly I found out recently that Professor on Paws (1926) is more of a sci-fi title, but at least that is one less hard-to-find book I need to worry about. For the titles I have reviewed on the blog, I have added appropriate links and through this links you can also read a synopsis of the title in question.
So, without further ado and in reverse order here is my ranking of Berkeley’s work…
The Silk Stocking Murders (1928) – This is the 4th Roger Sheringham story and it has the unfortunate role of being the title in last place. I read this story pre-blog but suffice to say the bad memories still linger on and I think it did encourage a reluctance within me to return to Berkeley’s work for some time. Though I’m glad I did get back into reading his work, as there are so many good titles I would have missed out on! Berkeley is known for his issues with women, shall we say, and this title is one of those in which it leaks through on to the page too much. Oh, and tedium was also another issue with this book! It is going to be a long time before I re-read this one…
Death in the House (1939) – This is one of the last mystery novels Berkeley wrote and it is a shame that his work concluded on such a note. It’s not in the same league as Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt, as Berkeley’s work is more coherent. Furthermore, the parliamentary setting and unusualness of the murder method mean it does start off in an interesting fashion. But unfortunately, Berkeley’s usual strong prose style is missing, and extreme boredom is the consequence for the reader. It is at this point I remind myself that I only bought it for 99p out of a charity shop, which does make me feel a bit better!
The Layton Court Mystery (1925) – This is Berkeley’s first attempt at a mystery novel, which I think shows. Prolonged discussions and monologues between Roger Sheringham and his Watson companion take up most of the narrative, which did make the story a bit dull at times. Extended sleuth theorising is not a popular structural choice with me. In fairness to Berkeley I think this is a structural choice that he moves away from and avoided in his more successful novels. However, this book holds several positives and foreshadows the promises of Berkeley’s later efforts. From this first novel we can see Berkeley’s panache for surprising the reader and turning things upside down, as well as his interest in playing around with established genre tropes and very often writing send ups of them – in this case of the country house murder mystery. Roger Sheringham has yet to reach the heights of unbearableness that he achieves in The Silk Stocking Murders and the reader can have much fun at his expense as he gets things wrong. Click here for a post I wrote, which examines the character of Roger Sheringham in more detail and in reference to what Berkeley said of him.
Top Storey Murder (1931) – In keeping with The Layton Court Mystery, sleuth theorising does become something of a reader nuisance in this title, though to a lesser extent. Equally both titles have suspects which less than sparkle. However, fans of Freeman Wills Crofts books may find this less of an issue, as the puzzle of the book is definitely its’ focus. Furthermore, I felt the mystery posed has a number of interesting features, especially when it comes to physical clues, which may or may not be red herrings. Moreover, this tale has a strong comic strain, which I enjoyed and it can be found most evidently in the scenes involving Roger Sheringham and his new secretary, in which he 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.’ Berkeley is resistive to both making her a Watson and a romantic lead and I think the book was all the better for that.
Mr Priestley’s Problem a.k.a. The Amateur Crime (1927) – Interestingly this is a title which I have reviewed on my blog but have also then re-read for a further blog post in which I discussed the title with JJ, creator of the blog The Invisible Event. Reading this later post will show you how Marmite-ish this book is and also how my own perceptions of the story have evolved. Gender relations form a key part of the Marmite quality, yet I still maintain that Berkeley is presenting a much more complex and satiric depiction than first impressions imply.
*From this point onwards, up until the top 3, the difference in quality between the titles is significantly narrower, and on another day it would be entirely plausible for me to arrange these titles differently. *
A Puzzle in Poison a.k.a. Not to be Taken (1937) – This is a non-series novel by Berkeley and follows more conventional mystery lines, though this is not to its detriment. The reader follows the events leading up the death of John Waterhouse, which is may or may not be from natural causes. The case is observed from outside of the police investigation and with no insider information, a more naturalistic effect is accomplished. I’ve described this book as a slow burner, yet this is no criticism and Berkeley did a good job of providing engaging character complexity as well as a few plot surprises. Unlike some of the titles already looked at this title didn’t feel like it was dragging on. Yet puzzle fans shouldn’t write this book off as near the end of the story, Berkeley issues a challenge to the reader, asking for answers to various questions, which the reader ought to be able to answer from the information the narrator had at their disposal.
The Second Shot (1930) – At the point of writing this book Berkeley was considering the evolution of the detective novel and the changes he felt it was going to have to make in the coming decade. Comparing these sentiments to this novel makes for an interest comparison as it is a mixture of classic puzzle crime with the relevant physical clues, timetables and alibis, and a character driven crime novel, with an interesting choice in narrative voice. Fans of epistolary novels will enjoy this one as the story is partly composed of a manuscript written by one of the characters, and of course you’re never entirely sure how much you can trust it. This text still contains the humour we are accustomed to expect from Berkeley, but I think this time around it has a darker and more cynical edge to it. Twist upon twist is another feature to expect from this novel and this is another hallmark of a Berkeley read.
Trial and Error (1937) – This was a re-read which I only just posted about yesterday, and it was probably one of the hardest ones to place. The premise is worthy of the books which have ranked better than it, but what holds it back from being in the top 3 is its need for a page reduction, as the book is overlong and given the nature of the plot, this has a dampening effect. Nevertheless, it is still very much worth reading and probably wouldn’t even seem that long if you’re used to reading the doorsteps that modern day crime novels often resemble.
Jumping Jenny a.k.a. Dead Mrs Stratton (1933) – This is a later Roger Sheringham investigation and as such it means Sheringham has grown out of his complete pain in the bottom phase, to an extent. Though his fallibility certainly goes up a notch or two, which makes it all the more fun for the reader! I have categorised this as a send up of the inverted mystery novel and it must be a first for an amateur detective to investigate a case in such a way that all the suspects, (barring one), think he did it! Like my 3rd favourite Berkeley title, Jumping Jenny, plays around with the concept of having multiple solutions, only for them to be proven wrong.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) – At last we are into the final three and boy did I have a hard job trying to rank them. But rank them I did! I don’t think I would be ruffling too many feathers by suggesting that this is Berkeley’s most well-known novel, not least because of it being included in the British Library’s Crime Classics series. This title is famous for its deployment of multiple solutions and Berkeley shows great skill in developing an initial murder case which is plausible enough to be open to that many alternative answers. This is a puzzle focused mystery without a doubt, yet it could not be as successful as it is without the attention it gives to character and I love how the solutions presented are shaped and influenced by the people who came up with them. One moment of humour which I still chuckle at is when Sir Wildman’s theory is being pulled apart and Bradley says: ‘You seem to be putting the odds at somewhere round about a million to one. I should put them at six to one. Permutations and combinations you know.’ To which Wildman’s replies, ‘Damn your permutations… And your combinations too.’ And for those with a cursory understanding of clothing terms will be able to predict Bradley’s retort… ‘Mr Chairman, is it within the rules of this club for one member to insult another member’s underwear? Besides Sir Charles… I don’t wear the things. Never have done, since I was an infant.’
Murder in the Basement (1932) – This is a great mystery centring on two newlyweds finding a corpse in the cellar of their new home. One of the main things I enjoyed with this book was Berkeley’s continued experimentation with typography, with this tale involving a story within a story. It can be found in some of the middle chapters, which are comprised of a story Sheringham has written about the inhabitants of a certain school. This “story” provides the reader with important information about the various characters and suspects, without the need of endless police interviews, which can be hard to maintain in an entertaining way. The mystery posed is highly interesting and the social comedy makes it a delight to read.
The Piccadilly Murder (1929) – Hooray! We made it! And yes, I have truly nailed my colours to the mast in selecting a top Berkeley novel. Let’s just hope it’s not too controversial…
This is one of three novels written by Berkeley which feature the occasional amateur sleuth, Ambrose Chitterwick, who I really enjoy as a character. I feel it is definitely a shame that he didn’t get more outings. Chitterwick is intelligent and sensible in the main, yet in Bertie Wooster fashion is somewhat under his aunt’s thumb. But this just makes him more endearing and their dynamic is also a useful vehicle for delivering Berkeley’s humour: ‘one of the most important men in the country started violently and quickened his pace almost to a run. He had undertaken to be back in Chiswick with the curtain patterns for his aunt by half-past nine.’ This novel, dare I say it, shows Berkeley’s talent at its best, in combining a satisfying puzzle with engaging characterisation. Two thirds of the way through this story you may imagine you think you know the who and why of the case. Yet it is far more likely that you’ve fallen into one of Berkeley’s cleverly constructed traps, (like I did!) Berkeley is sneaky in giving you the right pieces to solve the puzzle, but in such a way you can’t cotton on to their correct significance.
Whilst there are common features shared amongst Berkeley’s best books, I think there is still much variety within them. If a slippery narrator is your thing then why not try The Second Shot? If you enjoy the building up and exploding of solutions, with even greater and more surprising answers, then The Poisoned Chocolates Case would be a must read. If school-based mysteries are your thing then test your wits against Murder in the Basement, and if you want to read about one of the most irregular court cases in the annals of fiction, then Trial and Error is the one for you.
Some of Berkeley’s titles are easier to find than others. A keen eye though, online and in second-hand book shops, will yield results, and I would say most of Berkeley’s books are worth the effort of tracking down.
Congratulations for reaching the end of this post! Hopefully it has been of some interest and perhaps been helpful for those trying to decide which of Berkeley’s books to read next or for the first time. I would also love to hear other people’s rankings of Berkeley’s work too. It will be interesting to see how much they differ!