All Things Mysterious Volume Seventy-Four
Anthony Berkeley Quite Likes Chocolate
As we continue with our examination of vintage mystery writers, here’s one you may have overlooked:
Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) was one of the stalwarts of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. Two distinct pen names and two distinct styles means that, as Anthony Berkeley, detective fiction with the character Roger Sheringham rose to new heights in the Golden Age, loosely defined as the period in between the World Wars. And as Francis Iles, psychological suspense stories welcomed a new champion. Active as a crime novelist for only fifteen years, his influence was substantial and significant, as he set the tone in certain ways for generations of crime writers to come.
Cox served in WWI and unfortunately took a dose of poison gas which affected his health for the rest of his life. An intensely private man, he published his first novel anonymously, after having written humorous sketches for Punch magazine, among others. But what a splash that first novel made! The Layton Court Mystery introduced irascible amateur detective Roger Sheringham. Starting with his second novel, The Wychford Poisoning Case, author Berkeley made an effort to steer away from what might be termed materialist-based crimes towards an effort to explore the psychological aspects of crime and criminals. Further stretching the norms of the genre, Berkeley introduced Inspector Moresby, who in many cases proves a better investigator than the nonprofessional Sheringham. Much of the time in crime fiction, the amateur sleuth sleuths rings around the cops, but Berkeley was ahead of the curve in making the cops occasionally competent. And Sheringham is certainly not infallible; sometimes he fails to identity, or misidentifies, the killer.
But without question, the written work for which Anthony Berkeley is best known is The Poisoned Chocolates Case, first published in 1929. A gent loses a bet with his wife and must pay off in the form of a box of chocolates. They both enjoy some, but the missus dies. Someone has poisoned the treats! Who is responsible for this reprehensible deed? Soon, five more amateur detectives join Sheringham and each offers a theory on the crime and the perpetrator. Which is correct? Has anyone got it right after all? No spoilers here! There’s only one way to find out who, if anyone, poisoned Joan Bendix, and I guess you know what it is. The six would-be private eyes who try to solve the case are known in the book as the Crimes Circle, which was patterned after the Detection Club, an invitation-only gathering of mystery writers that Berkeley himself helped to start. [Golden Age of Murder link] It was Berkeley who was one of the pioneers of the notion of the fallible detective; that is, someone who occasionally makes a mistake or whose big theory reveal at the close of the tale turns out to be completely wrong. Which is kind of refreshing. And quite unlike the polite, urbane, wealthy playboy type of sleuth, Sheringham, especially in his earlier adventures, is an obnoxious loudmouth, which also leaves the reader strangely impressed with this significant departure from the fictive norm. Although like many a fictional character, he did change over the course of the series, to the point where he was considerably mellowed from his early characterizations. Although, right to the end, Sheringham wasn’t shy about breaking the law if he deemed it necessary!
Many crime fiction aficionados regard the three books that Berkeley wrote under the name Francis Iles as his greatest works; the first, Malice Aforethought, fascinates as the reader tries to reason whether the murderer, who is known from the beginning, will get away with the crime and if so, how? Before the Fact, the second written as Iles, concerns a woman jarred by the notion that the man she married is a murderer, and was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Suspicion. Meanwhile As For the Woman, from 1939, is the last novel and but for a few short pieces, the last fiction that Anthony Berkeley (Cox) wrote. According to some of his fellow Detection Club members, Berkeley did a sort of reverse Sheringham, being known for his urbanity and suave behavior, but eventually morphed into a mean, unpleasant man, which may be partially explained by his late-in-life health problems.
Eccentricities aside, crime fiction aficionados should not neglect Berkeley (or Iles), for some of the best characterization and plotting of the entire Golden Age is contained in these stories; indeed, if your curiosity is piqued, then look no further!
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