Caroline: The writers of detective stories can be as much of a mystery as the plots they create. During the 1920s and 30s, this attitude was especially prevalent. Some authors, grudgingly or not, accepted the publicity duties that often go with literary success — Dorothy L. Sayers, with her day job in advertising, was even quite good at generating column inches when she wanted to. But others actively hid from the limelight, refusing to supply photographs for book jackets and publishing under strictly guarded pseudonyms.
Anthony Berkeley was one such author. He had an outsize influence on this period of crime writing that we all love. He was the founder of the Detection Club as well as an innovative novelist fascinated by the whodunnit’s potential for psychological development and the way it could reflect real life murder cases. But during his lifetime he was reluctant to court attention, and since his death in 1971 there has been far less revival or adaptation of his work than other long lived golden age authors like Agatha Christie, say, or Ngaio Marsh.
Let’s get to know him a little better, shall we?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Before I start today, I want to tell you about a new feature I’m adding for members of the Shedunnit Book Club, the membership scheme that keeps the lights on for the show. Earlier on this year, during the period of strict lockdown in the UK, I ran some weekly livestreams where we watched TV adaptations of detective novels together. I’m now bringing that back as a regularly monthly date, so that on the last Sunday of every month we can get together to watch something mystery adjacent. The first one will be on 25 October and, appropriately enough, we’ll be watching Suspicion, an Alfred Hitchcock film based on an Anthony Berkeley novel. If you’d like to enjoy that with me and other members, as well as getting access to all the other benefits of the club including episodes without advertising, extended versions of interviews, and the monthly book discussion, sign up now by visiting shedunnitbookclub.com/join or by clicking the link in the description of this episode.
Anthony Berkeley Cox was born in 1893. He was one of those unlucky people born into a family of overachievers. His father was a doctor who was involved in pioneering early X-ray research. His mother had been one of the first women to study at Oxford University and came from an aristocratic family with connections to the Earl of Monmouth. Although Anthony was educated at private school and Oxford, he managed only a Third in classics, while his younger brother dazzled everyone at Cambridge with his mathematical brilliance and his younger sister got her doctorate in musical theory. He grew up in a comfortable, even grand, upper middle class household, but was perhaps always aware that he wasn’t the star of the family.
Why does this matter? Well, as a writer Berkeley often explored characters with inferiority complexes of one kind or another. He even wrote one book, 1939’s As For The Woman, in which the put-upon protagonist is outshone by a younger brother who is a Cambridge scholar and a younger musician sister. Berkeley might have been secretive about his personal life when it came to publicity or biographies, but he put at least some of his feelings on display in his fiction.
Anthony Berkeley volunteered to fight in the First World War, graduating from university in 1914 and going straight into the army. He didn’t have a “good war”, if there is such a thing. He was gassed while on the front in France and had to be invalided home to recover, with his health never the same again. A series of desk jobs followed, and in 1917 he married his first wife, Margaret. Upon leaving the army after the Armistice in 1918, he helped to manage the family finances and tried out various business ventures, although nothing really stuck for long. He began to get into writing, contributing humorous sketches to Punch magazine alongside his brother Stephen.
And then in 1925, he published his first crime novel, The Layton Court Mystery, which was dedicated to his father. This somewhat immature story is nevertheless crucial to understanding him better as a writer, both because it introduces his regular amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, and also because it was published entirely anonymously. For this first work, Berkeley didn’t even come up with a pseudonym — on the cover of the first edition it literally says “The Layton Court Mystery” by… question mark. From the very beginning, then, he was private and closed off about his literary endeavours.
I’ll just give you an idea of how Berkeley’s first novel fits into what else was going on in detective fiction at the time. 1925 also saw the publication of Agatha Christie’s fifth novel, The Secret of Chimneys, and she’d also published one short story collection already. Freeman Wills Crofts was also already five novels into his prolific writing career. Dorothy L. Sayers had published her own first effort, Whose Body? in 1923, and would follow it up with Clouds of Witness in 1926. 1925 was also the year that John Rhode, Ronald Knox, and husband and wife writing team GDH and Margaret Cole had their first full length detective novels published. Berkeley was joining a movement very near its beginning.
The following year, he followed this first novel up with The Wychford Poisoning Case, again an outing for Sheringham. This is a much more original plot. It actually draws some aspects from the real life Maybrick poisoning case that I’ve covered on the podcast before, with the central character of Mrs Bentley being arrested after her husband’s death because there’s just too much arsenic everywhere. Roger Sheringham, however, is convinced that the evidence against her is just too conveniently overwhelming, and sets out to find another explanation for the crime.
Also published anonymously, this book is notable because of how Sheringham’s character develops — he becomes, unlike the Sherlock Holmes archetype, a human and fallible sleuth who sometimes gets overexcited and jumps to incorrect conclusions. I think in this plot we also start to see Berkeley’s keen interest in psychology begin to surface — indeed, The Wychford Poisoning Case is sometimes credited as being the first psychological crime novel. Even at this early stage, when other crime writers were delivering canny plots that satiated the public’s endless demand for puzzles, Berkeley was interested in exploring the “why” of a murder mystery as well as the “how” and the “who”.
While Berkeley certainly isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, he does have one rather notable fan to whom I’d like to introduce you now.
Martin: I’m a great admirer of Berkeley, not because I think he’s always successful, because I think he wrote a number of books that were very unsuccessful in various different ways. But he’s very interesting. He’s an innovator. He is ambitious as a writer. And he did unusual things and sometimes did them very, very well. And I think that writers who show ambition with the work, even if they don’t always succeed. And I think that’s something to be admired as well as enjoyed. And there’s a lot to admire in Anthony Berkeley as well as one or two things to shake your head at.
Caroline: That’s Martin Edwards, president of the Detection Club and a very experienced crime writer in his own right. He’s written a biographical study of Berkeley that is woven through his non fiction account of 1920s and 30s crime fiction The Golden Age of Murder. One of the things that Martin really highlights in that book is the way that Berkeley drew inspiration from real life cases.
The particular case from 1889 that The Wychford Poisoning Case draws on also indicated a future preoccupation for Berkeley, in which a woman was tried for a murder that nobody could prove she had done, and then still imprisoned for it after a barely legal trial. Issues of justice and morality engrossed him, especially when the murder cases were augmented by issues of adultery and divorce. The execution of Edith Thompson in 1923 and the death of Alma Rattenbury in 1935, both accused of murders they said they hadn’t done, were also pivotal moments in the development of Berkeley’s thoughts on how the law treated women who tested the boundaries of marriage at the time.
Again, we can look to incidents in Berkeley’s personal life to partly explain this obsession with doomed love triangles and marriages that didn’t conform to contemporary norms. He and his first wife Margaret divorced in 1931, at a time when ending a marriage in public still wasn’t a particularly common or “respectable” thing to do. She shortly afterwards married the man cited as her lover or “correspondent” in the proceedings. Berkeley and his ex wife seem to have remained on good terms, though, with Berkeley’s biographer Malcolm Turnbull recording that the author left Margaret 1,000 pounds in his will.
The following year Berkeley married Helen Peters, the former wife of his own literary agent, having daringly named some of his characters in his 1927 novel Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery after the protagonists in this real life love triangle (or if you include Margaret too, square?). Berkeley had other, less successful, passions too — he was very keen on his brother’s wife Hilary for a while, and he also had a very intense friendship with the novelist E.M. Delafield, who shared his interest in the Edith Thompson case. She even wrote a novel about it herself, 1924’s Messalina of the Suburbs. Delafield, of course, married an engineer who became a land agent in Devon, and her semi fictionalised account of her life there as “the provincial lady” is perhaps what she is best remembered for today.
Judging by what he shared in his writing, I’ve always thought of Berkeley as quite a gloomy personality with a somewhat twisted sense of humour. There is certainly a slightly a darker side to the way he threads hints about gender, sex and sexuality into his books. The Wychford Poisoning Case stands out in my mind mostly for Roger Sheringham’s misogynist rants about women as the weaker sex: at one point he says “women are are fundamentally incapable of reason and their one idea in life is to appear attractive to men.” This book also includes several spanking scenes — whenever the 18 year old “flapper” character Sheila gets a bit above herself, her older male relatives publicly spank her, seemingly with the full approval of her parents. Roger Sheringham even swats her with a magazine himself at one point. I think these scenes would have raised the eyebrows of readers in 1926 — after all, it’s not like Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers were including such things in their books — and to the modern reader they are truly strange and distasteful interludes to find in a detective novel. And this unsettling effect isn’t just confined to this one book — you’ll find it wherever you dive into the Berkeley canon, Martin says:
Martin: I think that Berkeley is one of those writers who will always be a bit of a Marmite writer. He’s just a bit of a Marmite individual, I think. You like him a lot or you don’t really get him. And I think that that was probably true in the thirties. It’s certainly true now. But I think if you’re interested in ingenuity, clever ideas, a touch of darkness because there’s certainly a touch of darkness in his personality that comes through in books.
Caroline: I hope you can begin to see from what we’ve said so far that Berkeley is a complex, difficult figure in detective fiction. I think sometimes today the stories from the 1920s and early 30s sometimes have a reputation for being vintage and “wholesome”, but that most certainly isn’t true of his work. Nor do I really think this is an impression that is justified more broadly either, but absolutely not when it comes to Anthony Berkeley, who is also the author of the titilatingly titled The Silk Stocking Murders.
In The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards reveals a tantalising clue to the cause of Berkeley’s reticence about being more of a public figure, when he quotes from a biographical note that Berkeley wrote about his detective Roger Sheringham, who also writes books. It says that “Privately, he had quite a poor opinion of his own books, combined with a horror of ever becoming like some of the people with whom his new work brought him into contact: authors who take their own work with such deadly seriousness, talk about all the time and consider themselves geniuses.” I don’t know who these self aggrandising writers were, but it’s hard not to read this sentiment as coming straight from Berkeley himself rather than just being something he invented for his detective to say.
Distant as he was, Berkeley had already found that crime fiction in the late 1920s was a far more lucrative endeavour that the comic sketches he had been writing earlier in his post war career. And in 1929, he published a book that for many was his crowning achievement: the one that cemented his status among the greats.
After the break: The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case is a masterpiece: there’s no two ways about it. It once again stars Roger Sheringham, but he is far from the only sleuth we see in action in this plot. Sheringham here is the President of the “Crime Circle”, a group of half a dozen amateur sleuths who like to meet and talk about cases over dinner. The book opens with such an evening, only the guest of honour is a Scotland Yard inspector, and he gives them the particulars of a high society poisoning case that has the official detectives completely stumped. The Crimes Circle members decide that they will each investigate separately and then take it in turns to reveal their solutions one evening at a time, and see if any of them can succeed where the police have failed.
What you get, in essence, is a whodunnit with six different solutions. Each detective works from the same initial information and then goes out to investigate for themselves, following their own chosen methodology. Each solution that they arrive at demonstrates the benefits and limitations of a different approach to detection, as well as the character’s personality and prejudices. In a way, Berkeley is making fun of the murder mystery’s conventions at the same time that he’s pushing them to their limits. If the fundamental question of a book like this is “whodunnit, then the answer here is “this person, no that one, no somebody else!” and so on. It’s a great book for those who like to try and beat the detective to the solution themselves, too. I don’t mind telling you that the first time I read it I was feeling very smug through solutions one to four, only to have my version appear as number five, not number six. There have been two more possible solutions added since Berkeley published this book, by the way — in 1979 Christianna Brand published another one, and in 2016 Martin Edwards added his own for the British Library reprint.
Berkeley wasn’t the first to write a whodunnit with multiple solutions, but he certainly brought wider attention to the idea that there could be more to a crime story than just murder, investigation, denouement.
Martin: He really was very influential. The classic detective story in many ways is The Poisoned Chocolates Case with the multiple solutions. The idea of the multiple solutions was used a lot by John Dickson Carr, Christianna Brand and other writers, but Berkeley did it very brilliantly in that book. And that was a book that was hugely admired at the time. And it inspired many other writers. But he also wrote the book, which I as far as I know, I stand to be corrected, was the first murder mystery novel where the identity of the corpse is deliberately withheld from the reader, although it’s known to the detectives. So it’s an additional puzzle. The who-was-done-in. That’s a book called Murder in the Basement. And you see that idea used successfully even in very recent times, Lucy Foley, The Hunting Party. There’s an element that story. It’s not just a whodunit, but there’s a mystery about who the victim was. So so that was an innovation which he’s not had much credit for. But I think it’s also quite significant.
Caroline: The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Berkeley’s innovation in the genre more generally, earned him the admiration of his peers, even if as a person he wasn’t always the most friendly.
Martin: Well, I think as a crime writer, he was hugely admired. Agatha Christie, I think, particularly admired his detective novels and she was a big fan. Dorothy L Sayers, too in the early days, although I also think that their personal relationship, had a few setbacks during the 1930s. He was a difficult customer and Dorothy probably wasn’t the easiest either. So they had a slightly mixed time as friends. But I think that generally there is a huge amount of critical admiration for his work.
Caroline: Around the time that The Poisoned Chocolates Case was published in 1929, Berkeley also began to work on bringing one aspect of that story into being. In the book, his sleuth is part of a Crime Circle and clearly derives great pleasure from having colleagues, and so in life Berkeley began to bring together crime writers for dinners where they could talk shop, make friends, and otherwise share their enthusiasm for all aspects of detection. By 1930, these gatherings had become formalised and the group became known as the Detection Club, with Berkeley as one of the prime movers. I covered this in much more detail on a previous episode, in which Martin — who is the president of the present day Detection Club — talked us through that history, so do go back and listen to that if you haven’t already.
Around the same time that the Club was getting started, Berkeley was also at work on a new literary project. He had ideas about how the detective novel could incorporate more psychological tension, and how the reader’s sympathies could be manipulated to blur the boundary between good and bad, guilty and innocent that had been so black and white in the genre to date. In 1931, he published a novel that embodies these ideas, Malice Aforethought. But for at least a year afterwards, nobody knew that it had been written by Berkeley. He had gone digging back through his mother’s aristocratic family tree and found an ancestor called Francis Iles, a black sheep and a smuggler. That was the name he chose for this novel, and the identity of Iles was a secret he kept very closely. Victor Gollancz, his publisher, smartly leaked that Iles was the pen name of an already well known writer, which threw literary London into a frenzy of guessing. According to Berkeley’s biographer Malcolm Turnbull, popular choices included EM Forster, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley, EM Delafield and Rose Macauley. Although it seems that at least some critics had worked it out sooner, it wasn’t until his non fiction book O England was published in 1934 that Berkeley confirmed that Francis Iles, AB Cox and Anthony Berkeley were all the same writer.
Malice Aforethought stands out among the plethora of detective novels published in the early thirties because of the way it turns the by now familiar conventions of the genre on their head. It is narrated by the murderer, who reveals his identity to the reader in the novel’s opening line. Berkeley’s great achievement with this book is making it compulsive reading despite that fact that you know who did it right from the start — he even makes you root for the murderer at times, as he plays with ideas of blame and guilt alongside the unravelling of a crime. Francis Iles’s follow up book, 1932’s Before the Fact, similarly confounds the exceptions we have for a murder mystery story, albeit in a different way — in that one, you never really find out who did it, after all.
The remarkable thing about Anthony Berkeley is that he only wrote crime novels for about 15 years. His first came out in 1925 and his last in 1939, which compared to the careers of Christie, Marsh, Allingham and Mitchell that spanned decades is extremely short. He lived until 1971, too, but something stopped him in his tracks after the onset of the Second World War.
Martin: I think were probably a mix of reasons. He said that he wasn’t making enough money from the crime fiction. I’m slightly sceptical about that as an excuse. I think he lost his gusto. He wrote a letter in the late 50s or early 60s to a writer called George Bellairs, who’s also published in the British Library series. And he said to Bellairs, in that letter, hang on to the gusto. Believe me, it goes and I think that that came from the heart. I think he just lost his enthusiasm, the desire, the energy that had kept him working very frenetically almost in the second half the twenties and through the 1930s when he did write a lot of books. And then I suspect mainly because of issues in his personal life, he just lost that zest and maybe had an extreme case of writer’s block that’s been suggested to me by a family member. That was the impression that that person had. And it’s hard to tell because he was quite secretive. But I think that one way or another, he lost his enthusiasm for writing fiction. Although he continued to enjoy reading it.
Caroline: Berkeley continued to review crime fiction and by no means abandoned his interest in the genre. He just didn’t publish any more stories of his own. Part of that was personal, no doubt, but Martin also thinks that the fading fortunes of the golden age detective novel had something to do with it too.
Martin: The Second World War did change everything. And of course, one of the things it did as that the books that had previously been enormously fashionable were no longer of such interest, much less appealed to the critics who were looking at the new writers like Patricia Highsmith, Julian Symons and others, and therefore perhaps of less interest to the publishers. So there were a number of golden age type writers not least in the United States who simply couldn’t get their books published at all. Christie, of course, is an exception to every rule. And Ngaio Marsh was high profile and very successful. But the Golden Age, although books of that type continued to be written and of course still continue to be written in one way or another. The Golden Age as a period of burning intensity and innovation seems to me to have come to and with the war.
Caroline: Anthony Berkeley was a key part of that innovation. His passion for true crime, his interest in pulling psychology into the puzzle plot, and his insistence that every book should push the genre in a new and different way should mean that there is no appreciation of crime fiction in the 1920s and 30s that excludes him. But his personal reticence and the darker aspects of his personality make him a difficult writer to love in his entirety. There’s absolutely nothing cosy about Anthony Berkeley, but his work is still fascinating in all its bleak, dark angularity.
As the nights draw in, you can do worse than to delve into the pages of an Anthony Berkeley book and plumb the depths of his mind.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/anthonyberkeley, where there will links to the sources for this episode and further reading suggestions on the topics covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts
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I’ll be back on 28 October with another episode.