In world of golden age detective fiction there are fair few titles which are as easy to find as hen’s teeth. Very occasionally a copy of such a title may surface online, but not for long as it will invariably be sold for a price that would require a bank robbery or two, to pay for. A reprint is pretty much the only way many readers will ever access these stories. But will the title you’re looking for ever be rewarded with such a fate?
It would be reasonable to say that I am a fan of Anthony Berkeley’s work and over the years I have been steadily accruing his mysteries. That does not mean I think everything he wrote was perfect or even pleasant. He is certainly a problematic writer for the modern reader, but his experimental approach to detective and crime fiction, means his tales always contain something of interest, and invariably a modicum of humour.
Today’s read was definitely one of those impossible to obtain golden age mysteries. Before this point only a hallowed few had been lucky enough to read it and views were mixed. So I was very excited to discover earlier this year that this book was due to reprinted in the autumn.
The Wintringham Mystery was serialised in the Daily Mirror in 1926, before being released as a book the following year. At this stage in his career, Berkeley had only published one mystery novel, The Layton Court Mystery (1925), so Tony Medawar, in his introduction to the reprint, conjectures that it would have been Berkeley who approached the national paper. A bold move! One of the most interesting aspects of the publication history of this novel is that Agatha Christie entered the competition under her husband’s name and that she only won one of the £5 consolation prizes. Tony also suggests that this experience might have been part of the inspiration for one of Christie’s later mysteries. I will leave you to figure out which title I am referring to.
‘Stephen Munro, a demobbed army officer, reconciles himself to taking a job as a footman to make ends meet. Employed at Wintringham Hall, the delightful but decaying Sussex country residence of the elderly Lady Susan Carey, his first task entails welcoming her eccentric guests to a weekend house-party, at which her bombastic nephew – who recognises Stephen from his former life – decides that an after-dinner séance would be more entertaining than bridge. Then Cicely disappears! With Lady Susan reluctant to call the police about what is presumably a childish prank, Stephen and the plucky Pauline Mainwaring take it upon themselves to investigate. But then a suspicious death turns the game into an altogether more serious affair… This classic winter mystery incorporates all the trappings of the Golden Age – a rambling country house, a séance, a murder, a room locked on the inside, with servants, suspects and alibis, a romance – and an ingenious puzzle.’
Previously on my blog I have discussed the influence of P. G. Wodehouse on detective fiction, and today’s read contains more than a trace of Jeeves and Wooster. The opening paragraph introduces to the reader a man named Bridger, the ‘confidential valet to Stephen Munro, Esq’. Yet true to form Berkeley begins to turn everything upside down, as Stephen has to sack his valet as he himself is going to work as a footman! I would not want to belabour this parallel too far, as Stephen is not like Bertie in character, but Bridger is more Jeeves like. One way in which he is similar is in his unflappable response to Stephen’s bad news and there is some comedy had with Stephen’s growing frustration over being unable to move or shock Bridger: ‘Bridger, do you think an earthquake would surprise you?’ Yet the reason Bridger is not surprised is because he is already aware of what Stephen has been planning to do and had in fact applied for a job at the same country house as his employer. It is this omnipotent like quality which reminded me the most of Jeeves, as well as Bridger’s role at the denouement of the story.
Stephen and Bridger could also be said to be something of a pastiche of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his manservant Bunter, as they too fought in WW1 together. However, Stephen does not possess the personality of Wimsey and has frittered away the inheritance he received from his uncle. He is arguably a struggling soldier, but that struggle is very much of his own making.
I was not altogether sure if I was going to like Stephen or not, as initially he seems to treat the idea of working as a bit of a lark:
‘For Stephen was no snob. That a public school and Varsity man should be reduced to accepting a post as a footman in the sort of house he had been visiting all his life as a guest did strike him, it is true, as a trifle quaint; but it struck him far more forcibly as a really tremendous rag. Somehow Stephen couldn’t quite see himself as a footman, and the things he couldn’t see always interested him much more than those he could.’
However, knowing Berkeley’s work as well as I do, I had the feeling that the author was building up Stephen’s illusions of what employment will be like, to then crush or explode them, in the way a filled balloon might be popped. Readers tend to enjoy character discomfiture more if the character in question is a bit annoying after all! It does not take long for Stephen to be disillusioned: ‘He had somehow the idea in his mind that a footman’s job was a pleasantly easy one. It was only a very few minutes before he realised that nothing could be further than the truth.’ From this point onwards I think Berkeley does a good job of softening Stephen’s character and making him more appealing to the reader, which is important as he is one of the integral figures involved in the sleuthing. The way Pauline Mainwaring is brought into this role is also well done for Berkeley.
Knowing that this was a newspaper competition did in a way heighten my attention when reading this book. I was on full alert and keen to notice anything and everything. I was sceptical of what made the lights go out when they did and when they came back on. I was very suspicious of the séance held one evening, in which one of the guests disappears from a room which had its windows and doors locked and covered. I’ve read my Christie after all! (Though in fairness Berkeley’s novel precedes her story by several years.) And what was the result of all this vigilant reading? Well… yes, I didn’t figure it all out. The culprits mostly alluded me, though I had my eye on one of the right people. My main success was in identifying a key motive behind one of the “actions” (keeping this vague to avoid spoilers). I just couldn’t marry it up with the “who” of the mystery. I don’t feel too bad though as there are some aspects I would be surprised if anyone managed to alight on, as there is not enough in text evidence for some elements. Berkeley technically covers all of them, but I don’t think the reader will feel too much chagrin for not finding them all.
One of the reasons this mysteries is not an easy one to solve is that Berkeley establishes several possible outcomes and with these outcomes, more than one character or characters could be implicated. There is also the suspicious behaviour of the woman who disappears. How actively involved she is in her disappearance is hard to decide. Furthermore, death and theft enter the mix, giving the reader many puzzles to ponder over.
I think Berkeley, perhaps because of the competition context, put a lot of thought into the plotting of the book. In in his introduction, Tony includes this comment from Berkeley regarding the creation of the mystery:
‘In my early, more modest days, I thought I should be satisfied if I could puzzle forty-nine readers out of fifty. But later I became more ambitious and began to wonder whether it would be possible to devise a problem which would baffle all but a small percentage of more than a million readers. I realised that it is not in the intricacy of the puzzle that is set, but in its very simplicity that success may be achieved. It took me several months to hit on the idea of The Wintringham Mystery, and as many months to write it. In fact, I don’t mind admitting that I have written it seven times out, and it has been the greatest fun throughout.’
I am not sure how simple the final mystery is, but I can see the emphasis put upon mystifying the reader. I would not say this is one of Berkeley’s experimental mysteries and it is interesting that Berkeley did not make it a Roger Sheringham case. Was this because Berkeley thought that this character was unsuitable, or had he not decided at this point Sheringham was going to become his main sleuth? Nevertheless, the lack of experimentation is not a major deficit as experimenting always involves a great deal of risk and with a national competition that might not have been advisable. I know that some readers have not enjoyed this aspect of Berkeley’s work so I wonder if this tale would be a better read for them.
Stephen and Pauline are an enjoyable amateur sleuthing duo and Berkeley handles the upstairs/downstairs comedy effectively, making a decisive move 100 pages into the text, ensuring that this type of humour was not overdone and allowing his protagonist greater freedom of movement. Quite a thorough amateur investigation takes place and up until the final chapters, information is not withheld from the reader. Theories are espoused by several characters which then aid the reader’s own consideration of the case at hand. The ending is a little marred by the fact that Stephen does a number of actions off stage just before the solution is reached. I think this is meant to make the solution more surprising, but some readers might find it less satisfying. Readers who have tried other mysteries by Berkeley will know that he is not always the best at depicting women and their relationships with men, but in this case Berkeley adopts a more conventional romance, so this angle is less problematic than it can be with this writer.
So all in all I thought this was a good read by Berkeley, suitable for the keen fans and Berkeley novices. This is a country house mystery, with Wodehousian hues, that provides enjoyable exercise for the little grey cells!
P. S. My most recent crime reads have caused me more than once to think of my blogging friend Moira who writes at Clothes in Books. In my last read, In Muffled Night (1933), stained clothing is paramount and it also mentions the practice of lady’s maids selling off their employer’s discarded designer outfits to less well-off women who wanted to be dressed in the best. Today’s read also reminded me of Moira when I read about one female guest who became very huffy when a power cut takes place, as it spoils her entrance, having changed her attire for an outfit more suited to a séance: ‘with the help of a black velvet gown and floating, gauzy scarves’ she made ‘herself look uncommonly delightful; but the thoughtlessness of the electric light had undoubtedly detracted from the effect.’