Originally published in 1926
Roger Sheringham #2
Preceded by The Layton Court Mystery
Followed by Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery
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.
Credited as the book that first introduced psychology to the detective novel, The Wychford Poisoning Case was based on a notorious real-life murder inquiry. Written by Anthony Berkeley, a founder of the celebrated Detection Club who also found fame under the pen-name ‘Francis Iles’, the story saw the return of Roger Sheringham, the Golden Age’s breeziest – and booziest – detective.
I came to The Wychford Poisoning Case is blissful ignorance of any knowledge about the book whatsoever beyond the back page blurb quoted above. While the recent HarperCollins reprint contains an excellent short introduction by Tony Medawar, I typically skip over such things until the end, and in this case I had never read any other bloggers’ reviews or commentaries about the book. In short, I was unprepared for the spankings.
But we’ll get to those in time. First, let’s outline some basic details of the plot:
This story concerns an infamous case about to come to court in which a woman is accused of having poisoned her husband with arsenic. The wife, a French woman, was understood to have soaked flypapers in water for several weeks to extract arsenic and the drug was found in his medicine, food and even a glass of lemonade in his room. Everyone seems utterly convinced of her guilt except novelist Roger Sheringham who believes there is simply too much evidence of her guilt. He convinces Alec to join him in a journey to Wychford where they contrive to meet and interview many of the witnesses to the crime.
The setup is not dissimilar then from Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel Strong Poison which was published several years later. There are a couple of interesting differences between the setups however. The first is that Berkeley has his investigation take place prior to any trial at all at a stage at which the case has only been pursued in the press. This means that the interviews have to serve to reaffirm some basic facts of the case. Sayers however begins after a hung verdict in the first trial which only comes about because of a member of the jury insists on her innocence. In that scenario we are even more aware of how likely it is she will be convicted and hanged, making the stakes of that investigation all the clearer. I would also suggest that the trial opening allows for a more natural way to explore the background of a case than the somewhat awkward conversation we get here between Roger and Alec.
The more important difference however concerns the relationship between sleuth and suspect. Sayers would give Lord Peter a personal interest in the case by having him fall in love with the woman he swears to defend and protect. Berkeley’s Sheringham however is not acting out of anything more than what might be described as an intellectual curiosity though I would suggest there are also signs of a heavy contrarian streak in his character.
Indeed one of the least satisfying aspects of the book for me was that we get to the end of the novel with very little idea of who Mrs. Bentley is at all. In fact we never even meet her. While that partly reflects that Sheringham has no official status at all to carry out his investigations, I suspect that Berkeley is more interested in exploring the perceptions of this character by those around her and the prejudices that have formed against her. By never introducing us to her directly, we are not allowed to weigh those opinions against our own and so are required to reflect instead on our views of the people speaking them. It’s an interesting approach but I cannot say it was a particularly satisfying one and the absence of Mrs. Bentley’s voice in the narrative did strike me as quite odd.
Sheringham’s investigations in Wychford are highly informal and he utilizes trickery and manipulation to worm his way into the paths of the various witnesses and extract information from them. While I would agree with what seems to be the prevailing view that Sheringham is a smug and tiresome bore at times, I did at least enjoy the variety of methods he employs.
Berkeley clearly intends the work to read comedically, offering some rather sharp satirical portrayals of some types of characters. This material will either amuse or seem dreadfully tiresome – I seemed to bounce back and forth between those two feelings depending on the subject. I will say though that I found the playing around with apparent misogynistic views on the part of Roger to be less droll than I think Berkeley intended and I particularly struggled with the author’s generally positive portrayal of a male playboy character.
This brings me I suppose to the spanking scene in which Roger takes a rolled up newspaper to Alec’s teenaged cousin’s rear end over some teasing remarks. I found it pretty uncomfortable reading and felt that the ‘comical’ tone that Berkeley was clearly aiming for to be misjudged. In fact I find the whole presentation of Sheila to be uncomfortable given the suggestion of flirtation between her and the much-older Roger and the repeated references to her night clothes and posture throughout the novel. Which is a shame because I otherwise quite enjoyed her youthful enthusiasm and her teasing of Roger which helps prick at his arrogance and pretension.
I think the biggest problem for me with the whole book however is that it becomes increasingly clear as the novel nears its end that Berkeley is more interested in exploring the questions of why the various witnesses believe Mrs. Bentley guilty than he is on presenting the reader with the information needed to construct an explanation themselves. Indeed the final, presumably truthful explanation of what happened is revealed in a letter at the end of the book using relatively little of the information that we have spent an entire novel examining. To say that this is enormously anticlimactic would be an understatement. This is one of those occasions where I felt like throwing the book down in disgust – unfortunately that becomes a much less dramatic move when you’ve actually finished the darned thing…
This is particularly disappointing because there are some pretty interesting and entertaining false solutions that precede it, one of which (the last one) would have felt quite satisfactory to me. My only explanation of this is to return to the idea that Berkeley is less interested in who killed Mr. Bentley as he is in exploring that question of why people are so willing to consider Mrs Bentley guilty. I would much rather that the whole story had been framed in that way however rather than presenting it as a detective story with the murder as the focus.
As I mentioned at the opening of the review, after finishing the book I went back and read Tony Medawar’s excellent introduction and learned about the historical case that inspired it (there were two episodes of the excellent Shedunnit podcast about this but they happen to be ones I hadn’t listened to at the time I read this book). This sent me off down a pleasurable rabbit hole of research though I soon realized just how many elements Berkeley directly lifts from the real life case. Unfortunately the one really strong positive I had been clinging to up until that point was that Berkeley had imagined a really detailed set of circumstances for his murder case but, alas, even that positive got stripped away.
Not a favorite book at all then.
The Verdict: A tremendously frustrating experience for me. Better approached as social commentary than as a detective story.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime found a few more positives in the book than I did and also saw the parallels with Strong Poison. I also think she makes some great points about a rather odd claim about Roger made in the blurb quoted above.
Brad @ AhSweetMystery reminded me of one of the things I did like about the book which I forgot to mention – the exploration of why the supposed differences between the English and French justice systems are not entirely as they are often portrayed.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel was also disappointed, finding the characters of Roger and Alec to be a particular struggle.