Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) established a reputation for innovative crime writing under two different pseudonyms. As Anthony Berkeley, he took the British Golden Age detective novel to fresh heights, while as Francis Iles, he was a pioneer of psychological suspense fiction with a seasoning of cynical wit. His career as a crime novelist lasted less than 15 years, but in that time he helped to set the agenda for later generations, as well as founding the legendary London-based Detection Club, an invitation-only social club for prominent crime writers which flourishes to this day.
Berkeley was born at Watford into an affluent family. His father was a doctor and his mother’s forbears included the Earl of Monmouth – as well as a notable smuggler, who happened to be called Francis Iles. He served in the First World War, but was gassed, causing long-term damage to his health. His writing career began with humorous sketches for magazines such as ‘Punch’, and his first foray into the crime genre came with The Layton Court Mystery (1925), which introduced an amateur sleuth, Roger Sheringham. The book was originally published anonymously - Berkeley was a very private man, to the point of cultivating an air of mystery about himself.
Sheringham’s second outing was in The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926). Key elements of this excellent mystery derive from the classic Maybrick murder case in Liverpool; Berkeley was a student of true crime, and notable cases provided source material for several of his books. His ingenuity in devising a series of plausible solutions to the puzzle is impressive and it is a surprise that this book has not received more critical attention. Berkeley dedicated the book to a writer whose reputation has survived rather better, E. M. Delafield, and he expressed the hope that she would ‘recognise the attempt I have made to substitute for the materialism of the usual crime-puzzle of fiction those psychological values which are ... the basis of the universal interest in the far more absorbing criminological dramas of real life. In other words, I have tried to write what might be described as a psychological detective story.’
After this, Berkeley kept nagging away at the idea of the detective as psychologist. In his third appearance, The Vane Mystery (1927), for instance, Sheringham voiced the author’s views when he said: ‘Every detective must be a psychologist, whether he knows it or not.’ In this book, the amateur worked with Inspector Moresby, Berkeley’s principal police detective, whose ordinariness is constantly stressed. Here, as in Top Storey Murder (1931), Moresby proves to be a more effective investigator than Sheringham: a far cry from the days of Holmes and Lestrade. In another twist characteristic of Berkeley (but not of the period), the culprit escapes scot free and justice is thwarted. There is a similar outcome in The Second Shot (1930), when Sheringham demonstrates, through apparently irrefutable logic, that one particular suspect must have committed the crime and those concerned then agree to shield her. There follows, however, a typically cunning Berkeley twist, with an epilogue in which the real villain of the piece, whom Sheringham has failed to identify, explains why he committed the crime. The Poisoned Chocolate Case (1929) remains, and deservedly, the Sheringham novel most fondly remembered by enthusiasts for Golden Age detective fiction. The plot is an elaboration of a brilliant short story called ‘The Avenging Chance’. Joan Bendix has died after, it seems, accidentally receiving a box of poisonous chocolates and eating them. Six members of the Crimes Circle (based on the Detection Club) seek to discover the culprit and motive. They each come up with a distinct and plausible solution. Sheringham’s interpretation of the facts reflects the outcome in the short story - but with a masterly flourish, Berkeley reveals a different explanation as correct; it is propounded by the meek Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick.
Chitterwick returned in a couple of non-Sheringham novels, including the wonderfully entertaining and ingenious Trial And Error937), in which a dying man commits an altruistic murder of an unpleasant woman, only to find that an innocent person is suspected of the crime and that he finds himself quite unable to persuade the authorities of his guilt. Not To Be Taken (1938; in the US, A Puzzle in Poison) is a first-rate non-series mystery and includes one of Berkeley’s most enjoyable female characters, the feminist Rona Brougham. The final Berkeley book, Death In House (1939), despite boasting a House of Commons setting and an ‘impossible crime’ puzzle, was less successful.
The most direct influence on Berkeley’s creation of Sheringham was E. C. Bentley, who had written the celebrated Trent’s Last Case more than a decade earlier. Like Bentley, Berkeley decided to have a detective who was the antithesis of Sherlock Holmes, explaining in the dedication to The Layton Court Mystery:
‘I have tried to make the gentleman who eventually solves the mystery as nearly as possible as he might be expected to do in real life. That is to say, he is very far removed from a sphinx and he does make a mistake or two occasionally. I have never believed very much in those hawk-eyed, tight-lipped gentry who pursue their silent and inexorable way straight to the heart of things without ever once overbalancing or turning aside after false goals.’
The very appealing idea of the fallibility of the sleuth-hero remained at the heart of Berkeley’s approach. Lord Peter Wimsey commented on it in Have His Carcase: ‘There’s the Roger Sheringham method, for instance. You prove elaborately and in detail that A did the murder; then you give the story one final shake, twist it around a fresh corner, and find the real murderer is B - the person you suspected first and lost sight of ...’
The early Sheringham is not only apt to err - he is offensive: loud, interfering, abrasive, vain and rude. As the years passed, Sheringham – like Wimsey - changed almost out of all recognition. By the time of his final appearance in Panic Party (1934; in the US, Mr Pidgeon’s Island), he has to assert both considerable intellect and qualities of leadership in order to preserve a veneer of civilisation on an island where a stranded group of which he was a member found their characters tested to the limit.
In the penultimate book in the series, Jumping Jenny (1933; in the US, Dead Mrs Stratton), Berkeley provided a biographical note about Sheringham. How far the character had, by this time, become one of the good guys is shown by the concluding paragraph: ‘In matters of detection, Roger Sheringham knows his own limitations. He recognises that although arguments and logical deduction from a fact are not beyond him, his faculty for deduction from character is a bigger asset to him ... He has, in point of fact, very often been wrong. But that never deters him from trying again. For the rest, he has unbounded confidence in himself and is never afraid of taking grave decisions, and often quite illegal ones, when he thinks that pure justice can be served better in this way than by twelve possibly stupid jury men. Many people like him enormously, and many people are irritated by him beyond endurance; he is quite indifferent to both. Possibly he is a good deal too pleased with himself, but he does not mind that either. Give him his three chief interests in life, and he is perfectly happy - criminology, human nature and good beer.’
The first two Francis Iles books are widely regarded as this talented writer’s finest achievements. Malice Aforethought (1931) developed the suggestion he had made in The Second Shot, that it was possible to maintain a mystery reader’s interest in a crime even when the culprit’s identity is known. The ironic flavour of the book is evident from the first lines: ‘It was not until several weeks after he decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.’ The fascination lies partly in watching how he goes about it, and partly in seeing whether he will get away with it.
Before the Fact (1932) is a remarkable study of a born victim, the essence of which is again captured in a terrific opening paragraph: ‘Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized that she was married to a murderer.’
Both the Iles books were, by the standards of their time, relatively frank in their sexual references, and this was especially true of the third and last novel that appeared under the Iles name. As For The Woman (1939) seems tame today, but was judged ‘frank to the point of indecency’ by J.D. Beresford in a review for ‘The Manchester Guardian’. In this story, Alan Littlewood becomes infatuated with the wife of a doctor. The modern reader instinctively assumes that the story is in the tradition of Double Indemnity, with a femme fatale inciting her lover to murder her husband, but Iles offers unexpected twists on the standard plot. His usual publishers rejected the manuscript, supposedly because they found it too ‘sadistic’, although this sounds like one of those feeble excuses that publishers reach for whenever an author on their list tries to do something different. When another publisher took it on, they foolishly stated on the jacket that the book ‘is not intended to thrill. It is no more, and at the same time no less, than a sincere attempt to depict the love of a young, inexperienced man for a woman much older than himself, with all its idealism, its heart burnings, and its inevitable disappointments’. This impression of slushiness is reinforced by the description of the book on the title page as ‘a love story’. But although the book is weakened by its lack of sympathetic characters, it is clever and original and does not deserve the neglect it has suffered since publication. It was said to be the first of a trilogy, and a follow-up entitled On His Deliverance was announced, but failed to appear; no assiduous researcher has yet managed to find any trace of the manuscript.
Anthony Berkeley lived for another 32 years after his last novel was published. During that time, he earned a considerable reputation as a crime reviewer, under the Iles name; he encouraged several younger writers, and was one of the first critics to recognise the qualities of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. Yet apart from a few short stories, he wrote no more fiction. In the 1940s, Trial and Error was filmed as Flight to Destiny, while Before the Fact was transformed by Hitchcock into a celebrated movie starring Cary Grant, Suspicion, although the screenplay was much weaker than that in the novel. Even this success did not tempt Berkeley to pick up his pen again.
Perhaps the lack of interest in As for the Woman killed off his enthusiasm. In his interesting and well-researched study, Elusion Aforethought: the life and writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox (1996), Malcolm J. Turnbull speculates that punitive income tax rates also discouraged Berkeley from writing. Marital problems (both his marriages failed) and a high level of personal eccentricity (he pursued a bizarre campaign to save King Edward VIII from the clutches of Mrs Simpson) may also help to explain the mystery.
In his later years, his outlook on life seems to have soured – Christianna Brand, a near-neighbour in London and a fellow Detection Club member after the Second World War, wrote that he had been ‘charming, urbane and…perhaps the cleverest of us all’, but added that he became ‘rude, overbearing, and really horrid. And mean!’ Poor health probably affected the behaviour of this complex, introspective man and others judged him less harshly. The American critic James Sandoe, who met him in the 1960s, said that ‘his heart was weak but his spirit gallant.’ Certainly, Berkeley’s short and fascinating career deserves to be saluted. For fans of the classic English crime novel, his books remain enjoyable to this day. Nobody has ever done ironic ingenuity better than Anthony Berkeley.
(This article first appeared in Mystery Scene.)