The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926) by Anthony Berkeley

This is one of those books with a reputation. Charles Shibuk asserted that it was ‘Berkeley’s weakest effort’ and even Berkeley felt it was ‘only fit for incineration.’ Many of my readers will know what is considered objectionable about it. But is this mystery more than those awkward scenes? (Don’t worry people who are not in the know I will be unpacking this in my review!) Hard to please critics Barzun and Taylor thought so and they were by no means Berkeley fans, writing that: ‘the study of arsenical poisoning, the asides on the law, and the doctrine on love, boredom and adultery are all good.’ The only other remark I wish to make at this point is that I am boggled why the Amazon blurb includes this claim concerning Roger Sheringham: ‘the Golden Age’s breeziest – and booziest – detective.’ Breeziest I can concede, but booziest? Based on this book I cannot agree, as during the most intense bit of drinking, Roger in fact tips most of his whiskey into a coal scuttle. Suffice to say any of Craig Rice’s characters could drink Roger under the table no problem!

Synopsis

‘Mrs Bentley has been arrested for murder. The evidence is overwhelming: arsenic she extracted from fly papers was in her husband’s medicine, his food and his lemonade, and her crimes are being plastered across the newspapers. Even her lawyers believe she is guilty. But Roger Sheringham, the brilliant but outspoken young novelist, is convinced that there is ‘too much evidence’ against Mrs Bentley and sets out to prove her innocence.’

Overall Thoughts

The Wychford Poisoning Case is Berkeley’s second Roger Sheringham mystery, and it is inspired by the James Maybrick 1889 arsenic poisoning case. This is only one of the real-life cases Berkeley took an interest in and he often had differing ideas on whether the guilty party had indeed been caught. The psychology of the accused was a theme Berkeley would return to a lot when considering these past crimes and it is therefore something which crops up frequently in his work. At the start of the novel Berkeley states his aim to write a ‘psychological detective story’ and throughout the narrative Roger brings attention to the people involved in the case:

‘…don’t let’s treat this case of ours just as a story-book crime puzzle; what we’ve got to do is to remember the human element, first, last, and all the time. It’s the human element that makes the crime possible, and it’s the human element which ought to lead us to the truth.’

Moreover, previous to this comment he remarks to Alec Grierson that:

‘What do you think it is that makes any great murder case so absorbingly interesting? Not the sordid facts in themselves. No, it’s the psychology of the people concerned; the character of the criminal, the character of the victim, their reactions to violence, what they felt and thought and suffered over it all. The circumstances of the case, the methods of the murderer, the reasons for the murder, the steps he takes to elude detection – all these arise directly out of character; in themselves they’re only secondary. Facts, you might say, depend on psychology.’

However, it has been argued elsewhere that Berkeley is not entirely successful in making this mystery a purely psychological one and I think this is something I would agree with. Yet I should add that this does not necessarily make it a bad mystery. It just clings a bit more to the traditional detective structure, than Berkeley might have intended. Alibis, corroborating statements, timings and questioning of chemists are all still very much key parts of Roger’s investigation. Nevertheless, Roger considers what crimes his suspects might be capable of and whether the facts of the case match them or not. Furthermore, it is interesting that Berkeley was already beginning to think about how the mystery could be written and structured differently. But I think it was not until Malice Aforethought (1931) that he really cracked the psychological crime novel.

Our first experience of Roger Sheringham is when he is breakfasting with his friend Alec Grierson and his wife, and I felt this exposition created a Bertie Wooster atmosphere with Roger’s way of pontificating over the trivial. Those who have read the first Sheringham tale will know how unusual a Watson figure Alec is and he is a good example of a discouraging Watson, who does not try to boost his friend’s ego. Given how bombastic Roger can be, I felt Alec, in this respect, was a perfect foil to his character.

So now we come to “the awkward” part of the story. There is no way of getting around it, but the attitude towards women in these parts is going to be decidedly unpalatable to most modern-day readers. I knew of these bits by reputation before going into the book and I did wonder how bad they would be. I was also keen to look at these scenes less reactively and to try and consider what else might be going on, whilst not agreeing with the ideas they endorse.  

It all begins with Roger and Alec going to have dinner at the home of Alec’s cousins in Wychford. Their daughter, Shelia Purefoy, is presented as a stereotypical 1920s flapper, a manner which Alec does not like and therefore by the end of the first evening he plans to scrag her. To scrag someone, according to the dictionary, means to handle someone roughly and in this scenario Alec endeavours to juvenilise Shelia by forcibly holding her down over a sofa and trying to smack her on her rear end. Incidentally, scrag also has the archaic meaning of killing someone by strangling and given the motivation for this choice of action this meaning becomes arguably quite pertinent, since Alec wants to silence the attitudes/voice of Sheila when she says something he does not like.

At this stage it is important to identify that it is Alec who is determined to carry out this smacking and Roger wants no part of it. However, the real lack of disapproval seems to come from Sheila’s parents. Maybe because Alec is her cousin they just see it as two young people roughhousing? Yet Sheila is 19 years old and we know Roger is 17 years older than her, with Alec being one of his contemporaries. What makes this scene and others awkward and unappealing is that this type of violence is quite juvenile and would seem different if the participants in question were say under the age of 10, when kids might fight as a way of resolving a disagreement. But our participating characters are significantly older and I think it is that which makes this moment repellent.

However, something not often mentioned is that Alec does not solely focus his rough behaviour on Sheila and a few pages later he is tipping Sheringham over onto a chair, defending his action by saying that he was knocking him off his hobby horse. Again the motivation behind Alec’s behaviour is that he was fed up of Roger’s dialogue, in the way he was going on and on. I think this reveals something of Alec’s character. When he is confronted or forced to endure discourse that he either finds tedious or irksome then his knee jerk response is action orientated and he channels his disagreement through it. It is the type of behaviour you might expect to stereotypically find within a group of young male adults who respond to ribbing with hits and shoves. The narrative, at one point, mentions that Alec ‘was ready for another scrap’ and it was this vibe of stereotypical-masculine-university/teenage-esque mentality that I got from Alec.

I have focused a lot on Alec, in this matter, but what about Roger? Roger, especially in his earlier outings, loves the sound of his own voice and does not suffer from a low self-esteem. Verbal posing and posturing is part of this and in this book there is a scene in which Roger takes up a derogatory stance towards women and loving his own voice, goes the whole hog. This takes up a couple of pages and it is quoted by those wanting to damn the book. So I was interested to note that just after this section Alec asks Roger if he believes anything he has just said and the answer is a resounding no. This is why it is dangerous to take quotes out of context from Berkeley’s work. Narrative context is key and a few pages after this episode Roger is praising Sheila for her common sense, saying it is superior to men of her own age. Then there is moment where Roger sums women up as varying kinds of idiots, only to then identify himself as one. It is the way Roger oscillates between contradicting and extreme positive and negative viewpoints and attitudes towards women which I believe makes it hard to define his overall attitude in black and white terms. How much does Roger believe of what he is saying and how much is just posturing?

Sheila and Alec both assist Roger in his detective work and it is Roger’s idea to bring her into the team. Reflecting on the story I feel that Sheila’s contributions in terms of useful information and ideas far outshine anything brought by Alec and this is something that Roger acknowledges in his interactions with them. For example, they give themselves police rank nicknames and whilst Roger is named a superintendent, Alec is only given the title of constable, whilst Sheila is accorded the rank of detective inspector and when giving instructions to Alec, Roger tells him to follow what Sheila tells him.

Unfortunately, Roger succumbs to the rough housing behaviour at one later point in the narrative, armed with a newspaper, but the scene is far more truncated, and the violence of action is more muted. Whilst this does not even things up completely, Sheila does manage to pour a whole jug of water over Alec when he ribs her at the table over a boyfriend. Perhaps this shows that Sheila’s spirit has not been squashed detrimentally by her experiences. However, needless to say, I think this whole “comic” thread of the narrative is a misjudgement on Berkeley’s part and maybe even he saw that when he looked back on it.

Having gone into the awkward aspects of this novel in some depth, I am worried that it has magnified their page space in the minds of my blog readers, so I want to reassure you that these scenes comprise a small amount of the overall page count and that they are not intrinsic to the mystery itself and that maybe the mystery should be considered outside of these awkward scenes. The case Roger investigates has a lot to recommend it, as Barzun and Taylor outline. Roger too has some funny moments, such as when he is trying to ingratiate himself with a possibly hostile witness and he muses to himself that ‘this small person prefers it on a trowel; on a trowel, therefore, she shall certainly have it.’ This metaphor is then expanded through the succeeding passage with him then thinking, ‘For, if a trowel, why not a shovel? A shovel, after all, is the more capacious instrument.’ He concludes by ‘discarding the shovel and employing a pail.’

One other mystery novel this story put me in mind of is the later mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930). I wondered if Sayers might have been inspired either by the Maybrick case and/or Berkeley’s earlier book. Both stories have a number of parallels with each other, yet if you have read both books you will know how Sayers really does something different in terms of its’ tone and the way it depicts the role and lives of women at that time. But to return to the similarities between the two books, both involve arsenic poisoning and in particular both illustrate how the accused women are damned in the eyes of the public and the police due to their non-marital affairs. Sayers and Berkeley, in differing ways, portray a more sensitive and tolerant attitude towards such relationships. It is interesting, though not surprising, that in Berkeley’s book we never get to meet the accused and besmirched woman in person. She is always kept off the page and has no voice. We only get impressions of her through others. Conversely, in Sayers’ mystery Harriet Vane is very much present and she is able to express something of what she is going through. This structural decision creates two quite different books, despite them working with similar material. A final interesting connection is that: obgu obbxf vaibyir gur nefravp rngref. Va Fnlref’ obbx gur xvyyre orpbzrf bar va beqre gb gbyrengr rngvat na nefravp ynqra bzryrggr jvgu gur ivpgvz, juvyfg va Orexryrl’f obbx vg vf gur snpg gung gur ivpgvz jnf na nefravp rngre gung bofpherf gur fvghngvba naq znxrf vg nccrne yvxr n zheqre jura vg jnf abg. [This final section has been written in ROT13 code. Only translate it via Google if you have read both books as spoilers are involved.]

An artist’s depiction of Florence Maybrick at her trial

Dashiell Hammett, after reading this Berkeley’s novel described the denouement as ‘flabby’ and as ‘unsporting.’ On the one hand I can see what he means since the final solution is discovered off page and the story concludes with a long-ish letter from Roger to Alec and Sheila. This gave the ending less dramatic impact. But on the other hand, I wondered whether the final quarter of the mystery was the beginnings of Berkeley experimenting with the structure he perfected in The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), in which a series of theories are built up only to be swept away with another interpretation or explanation of the facts.

So all in all the mystery is a good read, but it is marred by Berkeley’s ill-advised gender based humour. Yet I don’t think it is the Frankenstein’s monster that it has been made out to be. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first experience of Berkeley’s work, (see my ranked list for some ideas in that quarter), but for the reader who has read several of his books already, and who therefore has a wider sense of Berkeley and his sleuth, it should hold no great fear. You can easily skip the offending passages if you want to and you won’t have missed anything fundamental to the plot.

Rating: 4/5

19 comments

  1. This one has a rather unfortunate reputation, but I never picked up because someone, some time ago, spoiled parts of the solution. Good to know it’s not quite as bad as its reputation suggests and appreciate your very fair dissection of those awkward scenes that gave the book its regrettable reputation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d rate this a 2.5. A detective novel’s success should not rest entirely on the process and theory. While those aspects make for interest reading and place Berkeley high in the development of the genre the rest of the book and, ultimately, the hugely disappointing reveal make it a lesser book overall. And the spanking nonsense (I guess that’s what Jefferson SS means by rough housing) is a waste of ink on paper. Not at all funny even as farce.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree that the book would have been significantly improved by those passages being removed. It’s a type of humour Berkeley seems to have tried in two other books he wrote in the late 1920s – Silk Stockings and Mr Priestley’s Problems. But then he thankfully seems to move on from it. Perhaps at that stage he is able to shed his earlier fiction writing roots.
      Have you read Cicely Disappears?

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      • No. That one has been extremely scarce for decades. I guess I should shell out for a copy now that it’s easily attainable. But I can’t get one until October. Did you read a review copy? I own almost all of Berkeley’s books but –shockingly — I’ve read only three: This one, Poisoned Chocolates Case (long before it was reprinted), and Malice Aforethought (as Francis Iles). I think I read The Layton Court Mystery, but I ‘m not sure.

        I keep meaning to go back to Berkeley (among many others), but I’m fascinated with all these unusual American women writers I keep stumbling across who either dabbled in crime fiction or wrote books that went unnoticed after the year they were published. No one seems to read them or write about them so that’s been the focus of my blog for the past couple of years.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I haven’t got a copy yet but I intend to.
          I know what you mean by wanting to return to certain authors, yet always managing to get distracted by others instead. If only we could read in our sleep!

          Like

  3. Thanks for the review… I do love a good Berkeley mystery, but I fear I’ve exhausted most of his good ones – so I’m saving ‘Second Shot’ and ‘Jumping Jenny’ for a rainy day. 😐 In any case, I think I read a review containing a spoiler for ‘Second Shot’. 😑

    Liked by 1 person

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