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Friday 3 February 2017

Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971)

The  Golden Age
Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971)
by Carol Westron
Anthony Berkeley Cox used several pseudonyms but is most widely known as Anthony Berkeley, the name under which he wrote the majority of his novels including the series featuring writer and amateur detective, RogerSheringham. Berkeley was born in Watford, into an affluent and well-connected family, his father was a doctor and his mother was descended from the Duke of Monmouth. She was a formidable and well educated woman, who had studied at Oxford University in the days before women were allowed to receive degrees, and had become a head teacher before her marriage. Berkeley was the oldest of three children. His younger brother and sister were both academic high-achievers, while he received a third-class degree from Oxford. Berkeley’s personality was a strange mixture of arrogance and over-sensitivity and it seems clear that he suffered from a sense of inferiority due to his relationship with his strong-minded mother and his inability to match the formal educational achievements of his siblings.

Berkeley served in the First World War, achieving the rank of lieutenant. He was gassed and also wounded by shrapnel and this resulted in him being invalided out of the army. In 1917 he had married Margaret ‘Peggy’
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.

Before the end of his first marriage, Berkeley had already made clear his infatuation with various married women. One of these was the author E.M. Delafield, best known for Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930.) Delafield shared Berkeley’s fascination with real-life murder cases. Although she is not usually considered to be a crime writer, she wrote Messalina of the Suburbs (1924), based on the famous murder trail of Edith Thompson. This was long before Berkeley and his fellow crime writers drew on real-life crimes for their plots. Delafield and Berkeley were close friends but it is not clear that the relationship was other than platonic. Any restraint in this matter would have been on the side of Delafield, a married woman with two children. Berkeley had no problem with adultery. Indeed, he was fascinated by married women, and it seems that the more dangerous and inappropriate the love interest the more desirable he found it. The women he became infatuated with included his own brother’s wife and Helen Peters, the wife of his literary agent, A.D. Peters. Peters and his wife divorced and in 1932, a year after Berkeley’s divorce from Peggy, Berkeley and Helen Peters married. The marriage broke down in the 1940s.

Berkeley’s first detective novel, The Layton Court Mystery (1925) was published anonymously, with a question mark (‘?’) taking the place of the author’s name. The Layton Court Mystery introduced Roger Sheringham, arguably one of the most fallible and objectionable fictional sleuths to ever be created. Berkeley had every intention of making Sheringham ‘an offensive person, founded on an offensive person I once knew, because in my original innocence I thought it would be amusing to have an offensive detective.’ The Layton Court Mystery sold well and was followed a year later by The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926.)
This was again published anonymously, although it was made clear it was by the author of the former, successful, The Layton Court Mystery. It is unclear why Berkeley chose to publish his first two detective novels anonymously. He was a complex mixture: a man who preferred to guard his private life from public gaze, but who was also aware of the publicity value of an unknown author. Perhaps, when one considers Berkeley’s self-defensive vanity, he was not going to commit himself until he had checked that these early detective novels were successfully received. In 1927 Berkeley published the third 
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.

As Martin Edwards observes in The Golden Age of Murder (2015), ‘Sheringham bears an uncanny resemblance to his creator. The son of a doctor, from whom he has inherited a love of puzzles, he is educated at public school and Oxford before military service. He writes successful novels and also for the newspapers.

Early in his writing career, Berkeley became addicted to expressing his own opinions and taking revenge on those who had offended him or of whom he disapproved under the flimsy cloak of fiction. Unfortunately, Berkeley was very easily offended and disapproved of a great many people and things. In The Wychford Poisoning Case, Sheringham spends a great deal of time expressing his antipathy to the modern ‘flapper’ as embodied by Sheila, who gets spanked more than once in the novel; Sheringham being one of the men responsible for one of these assaults. Berkeley was a great advocate of spanking, declaring it a suitable punishment for people of either sex that he disapproved of. Sheringham (presumably following the beliefs of his creator) is misogynistic, as his diatribe in The Wychford Poisoning Case makes clear: ‘Nearly all women... are idiots... charming idiots, delightful idiots, adorable idiots, if you like, but always idiots, and mostly damnable idiots as well; most women are potential devils, you know. They live entirely by their emotions, both in thought and deed, they are fundamentally incapable of reason and their one idea in life is to appear attractive to men.’ Berkeley dedicated the book to E. M. Delafield, the successful female author with whom he enjoyed a close friendship, and it would be interesting to know what she made of these opinions. In The Silk
Stocking Murders (1928) Sheringham encounters Anne Manners, a woman of whom he approves: ‘Roger could have kissed her for the slightly pedantic way she spoke, which, after a surfeit of hostesses and modernly slangy young women, he found altogether charming.’ In many of his attitudes, Sheringham reveals an old-fashioned priggishness that is strangely at odds with his approval of divorce and adultery. He is also anti-Semitic in a stereotypical manner, typical of the 1920s and 1930s. This is demonstrated by the observations about Jews that lie at the heart of The Silk Stocking Murders (1928.)
Interestingly, Sheringham does grow and develop during the course of the ten books featuring him and the shallow, obnoxious young man turns into a stronger character. In Panic Party (1934), Sheringham alone stands resolute and decent when a group of pleasure-cruisers are stranded on a desert island and, believing that there is a murderer amongst them, panic breaks out. This book reveals Berkeley at his shrewdest and most cynical about human nature, as he outlines a chilling scenario of ‘civilised’ human beings reverting into savages. This same premise was used to devastating effect twenty years later in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954.) Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927) saw the introduction of Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard. Moresby is the detective who works most frequently with Sheringham and is remarkably tolerant of his amateur interference. Berkeley was so busy trying to subvert the detective fiction tradition set by Conan Doyle, whereby the amateur or private detective always outdoes the professional, that often Moresby’s methodical plodding reaches the correct conclusion while Sheringham is still wallowing in his ‘psychological’ misconceptions. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the Roger Sheringham books is that the amateur detective frequently reaches totally the wrong conclusion.

Like many of his fellow detective fiction writer, Berkeley was fascinated by real-life murder cases. Occasionally his fellow Detection Club members may have allowed their detectives to turn a blind eye to a crime with a compelling motive, as Poirot did in Murder on the Orient Express, but Berkeley stands alone in his consistent approval of murder as a reasonable way of disposing of inconvenient people. In Jumping Jenny (1933) the victim is a thoroughly unpleasant woman who makes life uncomfortable for many of the people around her, but when she is found hanged, the arrogance with which Sheringham feels it is his right to conceal the circumstances surrounding the crime is only equalled by the incompetence with which he sets about the matter.

The majority of the Roger Sheringham novels are great fun but in these novels Berkeley’s claim that he has ‘tried to write what might be described as a psychological detective story,’ is not always fulfilled. It is hard to deny the very pertinent observations of Curt Evans in Sophisticated Murder, (Mystery File blog, March 2011,) in which he states: ‘Moreover, although Roger (and Cox) love to prate about psychology, the “psychological” solution of the four murders in Silk Stocking is labored and unconvincing, an indication that, despite all the talk, Roger and his creator are mere dabblers in the psychological arts, often shamelessly winging it when it comes to expository solutions of crimes.’ ... ‘With this surfeit of muddled motivations on the part of one mad murderer, the brilliant clarity of Agatha Christie’s solution to a series of killings in The ABC Murders is utterly lacking in The Silk Stocking Murders.’

One Roger Sheringham book stands apart from the others.
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.

In 1931 Berkeley adopted a new pseudonym, Francis Iles. This was the name of a smuggler ancestor on his mother’s side. It was under this name that he published Malice Aforethought. This is not a whodunnit but an inverted novel: a style of novel introduced by R. Austin Freeman in 1907, which follows the killer through from the conception of the crime. In Malice Aforethought, quiet little Dr Bickerleigh decides to murder his wife, Julia, in order to marry another woman, Madeleine. He succeeds in the first part of his plan in a particularly cold-blooded way, killing Julia by dosing her with a chemical that causes severe headaches, this causes her to take opium for relief and it is easy for this to result in an ‘accidental’ overdose. However, it seems that Madeleine suspects Bickerleigh and marries somebody else. Bickerleigh’s fear of exposure leads him to further and more reckless crimes. Consistent with Berkeley’s interest in real-life crime, the story in Malice Aforethought is loosely based on the Herbert Armstrong poisoning case, with a few aspects of Dr Crippen thrown in. As in Berkeley’s earlier detective novels, such as Jumping Jenny, it is regarded as completely appropriate for an unpleasant, undermining wife to be murdered. Malice Aforethought is a darkly comic, satirical novel, which is rightly regarded as one of the best novels Berkeley wrote.

In Before the Fact (1932) the entire novel follows the viewpoint of Lina, who at the start of the book, is a lonely, young woman in her late twenties and in imminent danger of becoming a spinster. After a brief courtship she marries Johnnie Aysgarth and the book follows the ten years of their marriage. Lina discovers that Johnnie is not merely an impecunious wastrel but a thief, embezzler, forger and adulterer. He is also responsible for two deaths (including that of Lina’s father) although he does not kill directly but incites his victims to act in a foolish way that leads to their deaths. The novel follows Lina’s thought processes as she realises that her husband is going to kill her and ‘a born victim’ she accepts her fate and the poisoned cocktail he hands her, although it is not made clear whether she dies or not. When Before the Fact was first published, Christopher Morley, the American journalist and novelist described it as ‘a masterpiece of cruelty and wit.’ It is a disturbing study of a Narcissist and an Inverse-Narcissist (somebody who craves being in a relationship with a Narcissist despite the abuse they continually suffer.) Lina is as complicit in her murder as her psychopath husband and both of them have moral compasses that are seriously skewed. As Francis Iles, Anthony Berkeley achieved the psychological crime novels that had always been his ambition. Alfred Hitchcock used Before the Fact as the basis for his 1941 psychological thriller Suspicion. However Hitchcock changed the whole slant of the narrative and altered the ending. Whether this was because the film studio did not wish their star, Cary Grant, to play a vicious psychopath or whether Hitchcock was wedded to his vision of a film about a disturbed woman’s fantasy life is still open to question. Whatever the reason, the original book and its conclusion is undoubtedly darker and more disturbing than the film.

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.

Berkeley lived over thirty years after the publication of his last novel but wrote no more fiction, apart from a few short stories, although he became an acclaimed reviewer under his pseudonym Francis Iles. He encouraged many younger detective fiction writers, including Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. Always introspective and prone to tantrums, his behaviour became increasingly irascible and overbearing.

One of the things that Berkeley is best remembered for is his major part in founding and forming the Detection Club in 1930. This elite club for detective fiction writers was created both as a social club for the ‘best’ writers in the genre and as an attempt to keep the standard of crime fiction high. Berkeley proposed the idea of the Detection Club and was the driving force in creating it, along with such luminaries of detective fiction as Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie. G.K. Chesterton was the first President of the club. Always innovative, Berkeley was a key member of the club in its early years and a contributor to the first six anthologies or round-robin stories that the club members published together.

Both Sayers and Christie were admirers of Berkeley’s writing and were tolerant of his frequent tantrums. However, as the years went on, Berkeley’s demands for special treatment obviously wore thin. Membership to the Detection Club was by election and, early in the proceedings, Berkeley had remarked that the club possessed two ‘Freemans’ - R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Croft – and as Berkeley had been the person to first suggest the club, he claimed the role of ‘First Freeman.’ At the time the other members had laughingly agreed, thinking he was joking, but in 1949 Berkeley wrote to E.R. Punshon, the veteran writer who was acting as Club Treasurer, and announced that as ‘First Freeman’ he had the power to veto any prospective members, even though he no longer served on the membership committee. Punshon was incensed by these self-serving claims and the rude tone of the letter and forwarded it to Dorothy L Sayers. Sayers had usually been tolerant of Berkeley’s outrageous behaviour but, on this occasion, her response shows her exasperation: ‘Bother AB! I do wish he was not so rude and silly.’ Sayers’ attitude was to try to, ‘Let a (more or less) sleeping Berkeley lie,’ but she accepted that he could not be allowed to derail the work of the membership committee or they would have no new members. Success in this matter may be seen to lie with Punshon who, as Treasurer, wrote to Berkeley reminding him that his annual membership fee was due. Berkeley was notoriously tight-fisted and this silenced him on this occasion, but it seems clear that even the club he had helped found and supported for many years had become another battleground for this over-sensitive, dissatisfied egotist.

Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham books are lively, witty and very easy to read. His later work, from Trial and Error onwards breaks new ground in psychological crime fiction and are certainly well worth reading. Regarding availability: Trial and Error, Before the Fact and Malice Aforethought are still in print. The British Library Crime Classics republished The Poisoned Chocolates Case in 2016, with interesting extra chapters by Christianna Brand and Martin Edwards. Collins Crime Club is republishing two early Roger Sheringham novels in February 2017, although it is interesting to note that they are starting with the second book in the series.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case  by Anthony Berkeley
Published by The British Library. ISBN: 978-0712356534. ASIN: B01KIHJMAS

Trial and Error  by Anthony Berkeley
Published by Arcturus. ISBN: 978-1848584556. ASIN: B00FYWYYOW

Malice Aforethought –by Francis Iles
Published by Orion. ISBN: 978-0752864785. ASIN: B007RG7IFA

Before the Fact –by Francis Iles
Published by Arcturus. ISBN: 978-1848580794. ASIN: B005CM1JVK

The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley
Published by Collins Crime Club. ISBN: 978-0008216429. ASIN: B01KTKEXUS

The Silk Stocking Murders by Anthony Berkeley
Published by Collins Crime Club. ISBN: 978-0008216399. ASIN: B01KTKEXSU

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

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