I decided to delve into some short stories for today’s review, which concerns a collection edited by Tony Medawar and Arthur Robinson and published by Crippen & Landru. The stories were originally written from the 20s to 40s, and this collection puts together work which has not been published since their original publication. The two editors for this collection write a very informative introduction, which caters for the novice Berkeley reader, as well as the reader who is more familiar. The introduction in the main focuses on the character of Roger Sheringham and his novel appearances. The parallels made to other writers’ work when discussing these novels were of particular interest for me.
Before we get to the short stories this collection also includes a “biography” Berkeley wrote for Sheringham, which was originally included in the US editions of Dead Mrs Stratton a.k.a. Jumping Jenny. The appendices also contain two further pieces by Berkeley: ‘Why Do I Write Detective Stories’ and ‘The Body’s Upstairs, A Parody’ by A. B. Cox. This latter narrative is quite amusing as Sheringham is consulted by a writer who has lost a really great idea. Has it been stolen, or is it just misplaced? Apparently, it is a three-barrel problem…
Whilst you are pondering that, let’s take a look at the short stories…
The Avenging Chance (1929)
This is Berkeley’s best-known short story and is widely regarded as a classic. Many of you will no doubt know that this short story is the basis for Berkeley’s novel, The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), (which was reprinted by the British Library a few years back).
Unlike in the novel the focus is not on the multiplicity of possible solutions to the poisoning of Joan Beresford, but on the chance factors which enable Sheringham to figure out what really happened. Nevertheless, we do see some pieces of evidence in the short story which have more than one interpretation. I think this is a rare example of a great short story made even greater by being put into a novel format. We also get some get good comic lines from Berkeley, such as when Sheringham is dining with a man who claims he knew Graham Beresford really well. Yet of course it is all exaggeration and we have Sheringham ‘realising that his host’s actual contact with Beresford at school had been limited, at the very most, to that of the latter’s toe with the former’s hinder parts.’ Final thought does anyone think that Berkeley chose Beresford as the surname for the married couple as a way of poking fun at Christie’s perfect married couple Tuppence and Tommy Beresford?
Perfect Alibi (1930)
Like the previous short story this one is a ‘compressed version of the novel The Second Shot’ (1930). This time Sir Wilfred, a chief constable, is telling Roger about the death of Eric Southwood. Eric is a notorious and debt ridden rake who is keen to marry the young wealthy Elsa Pennefather, much to the distress of her family. So it seems rather convenient that during a house party he ends up accidently shooting himself when trying to get a shotgun out of a bramble patch. We all know it is murder but who could have done it? The ending to this tale is rather abrupt and I think the premise is better worked out in its novel format.
The Mystery of Horne’s Copse (1931)
Hugh is walking on air as he goes home through Horne’s copse one night after bidding his fiancée goodnight. Yet his upbeat mood soon sinks when he stumbles across the body of his ne’er-do-well cousin Frank Chappell. He has been shot in the head, though he and his wife were supposed to be in Europe on holiday. Hugh races home to call for help but when he, the police and the local doctor go back to the scene, the body is not there. Moreover, a reply to the telegram sent to the hotel Frank and his wife are staying at also seems to reinforce Frank’s alive status. Hugh thinks no more about it until one month later it happens again! Though this time Frank is stabbed. Once more the body disappears. Is Hugh going mad? He seems to think this is the case when it happens a third time. But this time the body doesn’t disappear, and the police are hot on Hugh’s heels to arrest him. What is going on? This story has some tones in common with Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927), but it is a darker story, given the sinister plot unravelled. That said the tension is not racked up as much as it could have been.
Unsound Mind (1931)
Chief Inspector Moresby receives a phone call from a man who wishes to inform him that he is about to commit suicide using prussic acid. The caller is Dr James Carruthers, and unfortunately despite their best efforts the police cannot save him. Yet Moresby is unsatisfied with this so-called suicide. The note seems wrong, as does the victim’s change of heart when it came to which poison they took. The ending to this one is good, and I found Berkeley’s use of the victim in the tale very interesting.
White Butterfly (1936)
This time Chief Inspector Moresby asks Roger Sheringham to look into the disappearance of Mrs Warrington at Clearmouth. She supposedly left her husband 6 weeks ago to go to her married lover. But rumour has it that her husband killed her instead. There is not enough to go on for the police to get further involved, hence inviting Roger’s help. This story is one which demonstrates Sheringham’s fallibility humorously well and I think it is fair to say that he almost solves the case in spite of himself.
The Wrong Jar (1940)
The next case Chief Inspector Moresby asks Roger to get involved in is the poisoning of Cynthia Bracey at Marston. That she was poisoned using arsenic put in her medicine is indisputable. But when it was put in and who put it there is highly debatable. Cynthia’s husband is currently being held by the police, but Moresby is sure they are on the wrong track. I had a rather different solution in mind for this one and felt the one Berkeley went with a little bit unsatisfactory. The proof of the guilt lacked substance.
Roger does not have Moresby by his side in this story, but his old friend Alec Grierson, who first cropped up in The Layton Court Mystery (1925). Roger is called in to look at the Monckton Regis case. James Meadows has been arrested for the murder of Mrs Greyling and his sister is determined to prove his innocence. But this will not be easy. Several witnesses claim to have seen a man which looked like him, in a car like his, shoot Mrs Greyling three times in the head. Whilst his alibi was waiting in a remote part of a woods waiting for Mrs Greyling to turn up for a picnic. My brain having warmed up to the way Berkeley approaches his mystery writing, I soon figured out what was going to happen. A well told story but not the most of deceptive of mysteries.
“Mr Bearstowe Says…” (1943)
This story was ‘an adaptation of a radio play broadcast in 1940, “Red Anemones”; both may in fact be considered adaptations of “Razor Edge,” a short story apparently not published in Berkeley’s lifetime.’ The tale begins in 1939 at a beer and sausage party in Bloomsbury. Roger is not enjoying himself and gets landed with an awkward guest to talk to. The woman in question is obsessed with another guest called Michael Bearstowe, a good-looking sponger who preys upon married women. Berkeley puts it well when he writes that:
‘She’s in love with him, he thought without enthusiasm, as he noted the pleasure, singularly tinged with relief, or even gratitude, which at once illumined his companion’s face. He wondered who this Bearstowe was, and why he was not looking after his own, as he prepared for the worst. He received it.
A flood of Mr Bearstowe promptly poured over him. “Mr Bearstowe says…” Roger wondered how Mr Bearstowe found time to say so much.’
Two years pass and it is mere chance that Roger is with the police when a Mrs Hutton reports her husband missing after he said he was going to go swimming in the sea. Mrs Hutton of course is the mystery woman of the party, but why should she faint when Roger mentions Bearstowe’s name? The solution is a good idea, but again is a little bit too theoretical.
I am more of a novel reader than short story fan, but I did expect to enjoy these stories more. I like the twisty nature of Berkeley’s prose, but I didn’t feel as though I enjoyed it as much as I do when I read his novels. Perhaps the solutions are better prepared for in the novels? Thankfully I have Panic Party in my TBR pile, so I will hopefully get around to reading that at some point.