The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley

Book Details

Originally published in 1926
Roger Sheringham #2
Preceded by The Layton Court Mystery
Followed by Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

A tremendously frustrating experience for me. Better approached as social commentary than as a detective story.

Alec and I have come down here because we’re of the opinion that there may be very much more in this case than meets the eye. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, that Mrs Bentley may just possibly be innocent!

My Thoughts

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.

Second Opinions

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.

Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards

Murder at the Manor
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2016

Though I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.

Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.

The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.

Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.

The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.

Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.

Continue reading “Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards”

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

Resorting to Murder
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2015

The idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.

In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.

There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.

As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.

Continue reading “Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards”

Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley

Trial and Error
Anthony Berkeley
Originally Published 1937

Trial and Error is a novel by the author Anthony Berkeley, the author (albeit under another name) of the seminal inverted mystery Malice Aforethought. I had liked that novel although I found some elements to be a little disappointing and was keen to try out some of his other stories.

This is the story of Mr. Todhunter who has recently discovered that he has a terminal prognosis and is determined to do some good in the world. He raises the question of what he can do with some friends over dinner in a very hypothetical way and the suggestion comes back that he should rid the world of someone making it a worse place.

After discounting Hitler and Mussolini for logistical reasons as well as the sense that they would just be replaced by someone else he settles on the idea of removing someone doing harm on a much smaller scale. That person is a manager-actress whose romantic entanglements and professional jealousies have destroyed the lives of several people and who shows no signs of guilt or remorse.

Mr. Todhunter develops a plan and sets out, gun in hand, to kill her. After the deed is done he tries to arrange the scene to erase all signs of guilt and sets off on a long cruise with the hope of dying on his travels. He is distressed to learn that an innocent man has been identified as the killer and returns to England to convince the police of his own guilt.

Writing about this novel presents some challenges, particularly if you wish to avoid spoiling significant moments in the story. I am going to do my best to stay true to that goal which means that some thematic elements and writing choices will be left unexamined but hopefully, if you read the novel, you will understand why.

Structurally the book is split between a lengthy opening in which Todhunter formulates his plan and makes his move and the section detailing his actions after the fact. This split feels a little awkward, particularly if you are primarily interested in this as a mystery novel rather than for its darkly comedic elements and pieces of social and literary observation. I really enjoy Berkeley’s witty prose so this was no hardship for me but, like Malice Aforethought, some readers will wish he’d hurry up and produce a body.

My feeling is that anyone approaching this novel hoping for a good puzzle or thriller is likely going to find it a frustrating read because it will become apparent that the author is not focused on those elements. Rather I think it should be read as a playful swipe at the conventions of the genre and that crime authors as a whole had fallen into. One of my favorite of these observations occurs when Todhunter conducts a literary study of crime novels to help him devise his plan and realizes that if he leaves no witnesses and no evidence then he will be certain to be caught in a detective novel.

There are plenty of examples later in the novel where Berkeley undermines the sanctity of the physical evidence, twisting it to show that it is far less reliable a gauge of guilt than writers would have you believe. These ideas are often quite clever and yet they are also quite awkwardly phrased to encourage the reader to interpret them in a particular way that the author will later try to twist. One example is the business involving two identical pistols which is clever and yet feels a little overworked.

A large part of the problem relates to the characterization of Mr. Todhunter, our would-be killer. Berkeley devotes a lot of time early in the novel to establishing his motives and thinking and yet as the story progresses the reader is given less and less information about his psychology will likely feel that they know him less as a result. This is necessary for Berkeley’s overall plan for the structure of his novel but it also means that his behavior seems to become increasingly erratic.

In the end I think the story stitches together quite convincingly but for much of the novel Todhunter’s actions seem to be irrational. The reader is required to take it on trust that every action will make sense in the end and to have patience as the narrative takes its time to reach that point, seeming to lack a clear sense of direction and theme as it enters its final third.

The way Berkeley structures this story, the themes only really hit home at the culmination of the novel but the tale seems to meander rather than race towards that conclusion. JJ had a wonderful turn of phrase in his review in which he said that this book would have been better had it been written by Francis Iles, one of Berkeley’s own pseudonyms. While that may sound ridiculous on the face of it, I think he is absolutely right. The problem is that this book wants to tell one particular type of story when a more ‘Ilesian’ structure would suit it better.

Berkeley does try to provide the reader with a twist in the final pages but it feels predictable and underwhelming, particularly when compared with some of the alternatives he could have devised. He wants to explore Todhunter’s nobility and while I think that provides an interesting starting point for a broader rumination of the nature of justice, I felt it was ultimately a little anticlimactic.

In spite of that, I did find the process of reading Trial and Error to be enjoyable, particularly in that slow first third of the novel. I thought the premise of the story was quite delightful and I find Berkeley’s prose to be a pleasure to read. While it may not have been everything I had hoped for, on balance I had a good time with it and look forward to exploring some of his other works.

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Malice Aforethought
Francis Iles (aka. Anthony Berkeley)
Originally Published 1931

And so I reach another milestone for the blog. This marks my hundredth review since starting the blog back in October last year and I knew I wanted to pick something special to mark the occasion. Given my love of inverted crime novels it could only be a matter of time before I tackled one of the biggest titles in the sub-genre, Malice Aforethought.

This novel written by Anthony Berkeley Cox under the pseudonym Frances Iles was not the first inverted mystery to be written but it did play a significant role in popularizing the psychological, inverted approach to mystery fiction. In addition there is a style of storytelling employed that is quite distinctive, leading to other stories that adopt a similar approach being described as Ilesian. In short, we are dealing with a significant work here.

Malice Aforethought introduces us to Dr. Bickleigh, a country doctor who has decided that he wants to murder his wife. In the course of the first few chapters we get a sense of both his and his wife’s respective characters and the specific events that have led him to feel that way. It should be said that while he comes to this conclusion there will be a long way to go before he actually commits the murder but this thought, conceived after being bossed around at a tennis party his wife has organized, represents a shift in his thinking and the start of a new, dark path for him.

The opening chapters allow us to start to build a psychological portrait of the man and the forces that are shaping him. We learn more about the nature of his marriage to Julia, his desires and some of the complexes that he possesses. As effective as those chapters are, I think his character is best developed in his interactions with others as we see the way he treats some of the villagers rather than in the more explanatory passages.

Bickleigh is an intriguing protagonist because while he does some horrible stuff and is plainly not a nice man, there are points at which you might feel quite sympathetic towards him. This is a man who is longing for something his life cannot give him, in part because of his limited means and social standing and who in marrying upwards has placed himself in a position where he feels and is made to feel inferior to his domineering wife.

In many ways Julia is an even more interesting psychological portrait than Bickleigh because the narration is not as sympathetic to her character, forcing the reader to make their own judgments about some of her actions. We may question why she married Bickleigh in the first place, how she feels about him at the point the story begins, what she is looking for from life and what she is really intending when he first asks her for a divorce. Like her husband, our feelings about her may shift at points and even now I am not entirely sure how I feel about her.

Many of the other women in Bickleigh’s life are similarly hard to pin down. Madeleine, the young woman who has just moved to the Hall at the start of the novel, is also hard to get a definitive read on. Often her actions seem to contradict themselves, sometimes seeming to encourage Bickleigh’s interest while at others pushing him away. And then there’s Ivy… It strikes me that while Bickleigh may be an interesting protagonist, it is the women he is drawn to and their responses to him that I find to be one of the most interesting aspects of the novel.

But to return to Bickleigh, the first half of the novel sees him conceive and execute a plan to kill his wife. Knowing that he will be responsible, our interest then will be not only understanding why he will do this but how it shall be done. The second half of the novel focuses on the consequences of that act both legally and also in terms of the way his wife’s death will be interpreted.

I found both parts of this novel to make for compelling reading and enjoyed seeing how Bickleigh’s plans would unfold. His plans are, on the face of it, quite ingenious and while there are a few small mistakes made, this only builds anticipation for the courtroom scene towards the end of the novel. The reader is likely going to have an idea of the issues with his defence that will be exploited. Instead the author subverts some of those expectations, delivering an ending that is surprising even when you know a surprise is coming. It is done quite masterfully and I think that ending is probably the greatest reason that this novel stands out as a seminal work in the sub-genre.

So, after saying all that surely this work must stand as my favorite inverted mystery? Not quite, though it comes close. I was certainly gripped and highly entertained, devouring the whole thing in a single sitting. Bickleigh is certainly an interesting protagonist and I enjoyed learning what drove him and where he would go but his plan, while certainly audacious, is also quite technical and much of his plan remains entirely in his control.

It is certainly a very satisfying adventure though and I certainly think it deserves to be held up as a classic of the crime genre. Unfortunately it currently seems to be out of print though apparently Macmillan will be releasing a collector’s hardcover in 2019. I am certain I’ll be picking up another copy to add to my permanent collection.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Features a courtroom scene (Where)

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards

Serpents in Eden
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2016

Life commitments have caused me to need to find something I can dip in and out of at pretty short notice so I have been picking up more of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

Serpents in Eden is a collection of crimes set in the countryside though the setting is more critical in some stories than others where it is merely background. As always Martin Edwards has selected a diverse collection of stories on his theme and provides superb introductions, both to the collection as a whole and then to the authors who wrote the individual entries featured.

It is a pretty interesting collection though a little less well balanced than others published as part of this range. I particularly recommend the very short Clue in the Mustard which is quite amusing at points and Murder by Proxy which has a clever solution.

If this volume’s theme appeals to you then I’d suggest picking it up as though there are always a few misfires, most of the volume is pretty entertaining and does a good job of preventing variations on a theme.

On to the stories…

The Black Doctor by Arthur Conan Doyle

Or perhaps more accurately: the Doctor of Indeterminate Swarthy Ethnicity. This is the story of a country doctor who has established a successful practice in Lancashire. After many years of bachelorhood he finally proposes to a local woman but abruptly calls off the wedding. The narrative is structured around the trial of a man believed to have killed him.

There is no detective or sleuth to follow – this is more in the line of an unusual story being related but it is quite enjoyable, if a little slight.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin

An entertaining read, even if some aspects of the crime are easy to deduce. The story concerns a man who is found dead in his study having been shot in the back of the head. Paul Beck is called in to investigate the case by the man’s son who has become the principal suspect.

Forget about who did it – the killer’s identity is clear enough – as the focus here is really on how the deed was done. The solution is quite clever though Beck never really proved his case, rather the guilty party confesses. Still, it is fun and I’d be interested to see out some other Beck adventures.

The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton

This didn’t capture my imagination at all and so did not make for the best first impression for Chesterton’s work. A murder takes place on a remote island near the country home of Sir Hook. While the mystery didn’t grab me, this is one of the stronger entries in the collection for incorporating countryside elements.

The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley

I quite enjoyed this story in which a pair of American tourists show our sleuth a historic tabard they purchased at a vicarage while driving through the country though it is a little slow in the telling. The scheme is worked out well but the explanation is a little too detailed.

The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins

A solid if unremarkable story about a vicar receiving anonymous letters laced with innuendo about his daughter and the curate.

The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey

A woman reports that she is being followed by someone everywhere she goes. At first Reggie Fortune seems disinterested but when she adds that someone is littering the path with dead animals he agrees it seems suspicious.

An interesting concept and approach but in my opinion the ideas are not well realized.

The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman

You would think that given my love of inverted mysteries I would have got around to trying an R. Austin Freeman already. Well, this isn’t an inverted mystery but it does whet my appetite for when I do so.

The story involves an apparent suicide of a man in a ditch. The inquest cannot reach a conclusion but Dr. Thorndyke is certain it is murder and conducts his own investigation. The question is why does Dr. Thorndyke think it is murder and how will he prove it. The answers are clever.

A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham

This is a very short story set in a public house several weeks after a vegetable show was ruined when the produce is trampled by cattle. Tensions are still high in the village as some of the contenders suspect each other for orchestrating the disaster. The resolution of the story is quite charming, if expected.

Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley

A simple and dragged out case in which a man is accused of the murder of the woman he is having an affair with. The solution to why the suspect would have murdered her in plain sight of the village is obvious from the start and so the only question is what precise evidence will Sheringham be able to assemble to prove it. A disappointment.

Inquest by Lenora Wodehouse

A very different story that strikes a decidedly interesting and provocative note at its end. The narrator is travelling by train when he encounters a familiar face he is unable to place at first. It turns out that they recognize each other from an inquest into the death of a man who seems to have been murdered by his nephew.

The plot of the story is interesting enough to make this worth recommending but the tone of the ending is very different and there are some aspects of the solution that feel quite original. A highlight in the collection, though the countryside elements are minimal.

The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White

A young woman escapes assassination and her would-be killer is locked away. Several years later he emerges from prison, placing the woman in danger. How will she and her friends evade the killer’s notice.

While this is an interesting premise and I did like some of the turns of phrase and details in the novel, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped. That is a shame because there is some excellent writing here.

Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce

A short but amusing story that sees Sergeant Beef solve his first murder (though you wouldn’t really know that if it weren’t mentioned in the preface to the story). An elderly woman is found dead in her garden to some surprise as she had seemed in relatively good health. While it appears like natural causes were responsible, Beef is able to demonstrate it was murder and explain how it was managed.

The method used is quite ingenious (and I am pleased to say that I guessed most of it) but the best part is Beef’s unusual reasoning for how he works it all out.

Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell

The final story is incredibly short but also one of my favorites in the collection. It involves a village performance of a morris dance which has created some tensions between several of the men of the village. When someone ends up dead we are left wondering who may have been responsible.

It’s a clever little tale with a great reveal that is all the more impressive for being told in just a few pages.