Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971)
by Carol Westron
Farrar. They were both very young and the marriage failed although they did not divorce until 1931, and after the divorce they remained on good terms. After leaving the army Berkeley tried numerous ways to make a living, none of which were successful and all of which were short-lived. He was however successful in contributing many humorous sketches to Punch and other periodicals. In 1927 he published two novels under different names: Cicely Disappears under the name A. Monmouth Platts and Mr Priestley’s Problem under the name A.B. Cox.
Sheringham novel, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery under his pseudonym Anthony Berkeley and for the next seven years, published a Roger Sheringham novel every year.
One Roger Sheringham book stands apart from the others.
In The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929),Sheringham has formed a club of six eminent people interested in criminology and they get together to each propose their solution to a recent murder case. Drawing on his personal life, as usual, Berkeley describes one of the members as ‘a brilliant novelist who ought to have been more famous than she was.’ In this way he brings into the story his close friend, E M Delafield, describing her as ‘a tall, good-looking woman... This was Alicia Dammers, the novelist, who ran Women’s Institutes for a hobby, listened to other people’s speeches with genuine and altruistic enjoyment, and, in practice the most staunch of Conservatives, supported with enthusiasm the theories of the Socialist party.’ The Poisoned Chocolates Case is very cleverly written and brings into play Berkeley’s outstanding skill of satire. It also introduces Mr Ambrose Chitterwick, ‘a mild little man of no particular appearance who had been even more surprised at being admitted to this company of personages than they had been at finding him amongst them.’ All of the solutions offered sound plausible but, with Berkeley’s fine sense of irony, it is Mr Chitterwick who comes up with the most startling and plausible suggestion. Especially amusing is Roger Sheringham’s dismay as he realises the clever game he had devised to amuse his fellow club members is liable to destroy the club in its infancy.
Mr Chitterwick appears again, without Sheringham, in The Piccadilly Murder (1929)and Trial and Error (1937).The latter is especially interesting as it shows Berkeley’s development away from Roger Sheringham and indeed, although this is still an Anthony Berkeley book, it indicates a move away from being Anthony Berkeley into the more sinister and sophisticated world of his later pseudonym, Francis Iles. In Trial and Error, Lawrence Todhunter is warned by his doctor that he will soon die of heart disease. He consults various eminent friends about how he could best benefit the world before he is forced to leave it and decides that the best course of action would be to murder the most obnoxious person he can discover. Todhunter carries through his scheme but, to his horror, an innocent man is arrested for the crime. In a convoluted, clever and wickedly humorous plot it is left to quiet little Mr Chitterwick to save the day.
Berkeley did not produce another book for seven years and when he did so it was an extraordinary turn-around for an author of such powerful and innovative psychological crime novels. As for the Woman (1939) is described as ‘a love story’ and it is quite blatantly based on his own family structure. Berkeley had always used fiction to say outrageous things but As for the Woman was a much deeper step into fiction as personal therapy, or possibly as revenge on those he felt had slighted him. The hero of the novel is Alan Littlewood, the oldest of three children, an Oxford graduate, academically a failure in comparison with his siblings, (like Berkeley’s siblings, Littlewood’s sister is a musician and his brother a Cambridge scholar.) Also like Berkeley, Littlewood has literary ambitions, which are snubbed by his mother. In As for the Woman, Littlewood falls in love with an older, married woman who proves unworthy of his devotion. In 1939 the novel was regarded as sexually explicit and was rejected by Berkeley’s usual publisher on the grounds that it was too sadistic. When a publisher did take it on they marketed it as a ‘love story’ about a young, inexperienced man and his passion for an older woman. As for the Woman was supposed to be part of a trilogy, but no other manuscripts of full-length fiction by Berkeley have been discovered.