Find an impossible murder!
A Proud Amazon Associate!
Locked Room Reviews:
The Layton Court Mystery by Anthony Berkeley
An important mystery milestone!
A Proud Amazon Associate
There are many great Golden Age mysteries and many witty parodies of the genre, but only Anthony Berkeley somehow manages to achieve both in a single character. Roger Sheringham brilliantly bumbles his way to the correct solution, but only after numerous failures caused by his faulty reasoning, which is clearly intended as a commentary on all those countless Sherlockian detectives that infer far too much from the most minute piece of evidence.
Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893 – 1971) was born in 1893 in Watford, and educated at Sherborne School and University College London. After serving in the British Army in World War I, he worked as a journalist for many years, contributing to such magazines as Punch and The Humorist. He wrote under several pen-names, including Francis Iles, Anthony Berkeley and A. Monmouth Platts, though this first novel, The Layton Court Mystery, was published anonymously in 1925, and not actually attributed to Anthony Berkeley until the US publication in 1929. In 1930, Berkeley also helped found the legendary Detection Club in London along with Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and several other established mystery writers. In 1938, he took up book reviewing for John O’London’s Weekly and the Daily Telegraph, writing under his pen name Francis Iles. He also wrote for the Sunday Times in the 1940s and for The Guardian, from the mid-1950s until 1970. He remained a key figure in the development of British crime fiction until his death in 1971.
The Layton Court Mystery introduces Roger Sheringham, an amateur detective who is featured in several of Berkeley’s novels. Roger Sheringham is your basic upper-class British Oxford man who talks a great deal of piffle. He is staying at a country house, Layton Court, when his host, Victor Stanworth, is found dead inside his locked library. The body has been shot in the middle of the forehead and a signed note on the desk declares that it was suicide. However, Sheringham finds the position of the shot and the lack of any clear motive for suicide to be a bit bothersome. He therefore decides to play amateur detective and elicits the help of the young athletic Alec Grierson to be his Watson.
Victor had lived as a bachelor, relying on his widowed sister-in-law, Lady Stanworth, to keeps house for him and help him to entertain all the best and the brightest. He also employed a secretary, Major Jefferson, and a butler who was once a prize boxer. His current guests, other than Sheringham and Grierson, include Lady Stanworth’s friend Mrs. Shannon and her daughter Barbara, as well as Mrs. Plant, an attractive 26 year old woman whose husband is in the Sudanese Civil Service. The night before the story opens, Barbara had become engaged to Grierson, but by breakfast, before the murder is even discovered, that relationship has already been put on hold. This appears quite odd to Sheringham as Grierson had been specifically invited to meet Barbara, while he had been invited merely to entertain young Grierson – a job which his ridiculous antics and loquacious speech accomplish to near perfection.
While Sheringham is convinced that this is murder, the police and the coroner remain uninterested in further investigation and soon rule it a suicide. Yet, both Major Jefferson and Mrs Plant had at first shown a suspicious interest in Stanworth’s safe. Though, by the time it is opened by the police, their interest has clearly faded. Sheringham continues to develop new theories and remains undaunted as each new idea falls to pieces. One thread puts the two detectives on the track of a supposed killer – which leads them to a bad tempered bull in the middle of a farmer’s field! Still, progress is gradually made, the locked room is soon cracked and one by one the suspects are gradually eliminated. Yet, only as they finally take leave of Layton Court, does Sheringham finally solve the whodunnit! To say more about this mystery would only ruin the plot – and that would be a shame as this is an excellent mystery, with great characters and a decent locked room device.
I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though a single rather brash instance of anti-Semitism must be excused as a product of the era. This mystery is simply a pure delight with a great puzzle wrapped in a delightfully capricious investigation. As noted above, this book serves not only as a great locked room mystery, but also as an excellent parody of the Golden Age investigation where long chains of questionable deductions invariably point to the guilty party. I have always thought that such a process would likely lead to many flawed solutions, which makes Sheringham’s silly blunders appear refreshingly honest. It is also interesting to note that Sheringham was apparently designed as a bit of an anti-hero. He was clearly fallible, a loquacious ass who spouted meaningless piffle, and he regularly flaunts many of the social conventions of a gentleman by openly questioning another man’s honour and failing to keep women on a sufficiently high pedestal. Roger Sheringham is a throughly human investigator who jumps to unwarranted conclusions, makes flawed deductions, and gets easily side tracked because he fails to properly balance all the evidence. His style is a curious blend of awkward deductions and wild imagination, which creates an intriguing process that leads to some very humorous conclusions. Overall, it is a welcome relief from all the too perfect detectives that populate your average GA mystery novel!
The only real negative is that the whodunnit becomes far too obvious quite early in the novel, at least when looked at through modern eyes that have seen this plot repeated far too often. However, it may have been far less clear in the 1920’s, and the reader is certainly kept very well entertained throughout, as many of the details only emerge in the final pages. As a locked room it is also quite superb, especially when we realize that Carr was only 19 and his first novel was still five years away! Berkeley was essentially making up many key elements of the GA locked room genre as he wrote this novel; creating techniques that that would be borrowed by every one from Ngaio Marsh to Ellery Queen.
How to rate The Layton Court Mystery? I thoroughly enjoyed this light romp and Berkeley’s delightful ass of a detective, the very charming Roger Sheringham! When you consider that this was a debut novel and note its critical role in the development of the GA genre, it must be given high marks. It may not be a perfect whodunnit, but otherwise this is a solid five star read with a great plot, a loveable detective, and some very fine mystery writing!
A Proud Amazon Associate