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Sunday, August 27, 2023

Mystery Series - Roger Sheringham

alt text Anthony Berkeley Cox (public domain)
Anthony Berkely Cox was an early writer in the golden age of mysteries. His first book, The Layton Court Mystery, was published in 1925. He was one of the founders of the Detection Club, a group to which most of the famous authors of this period belonged, including Agatha Christie. The last Sheringham story was written in 1943. He wrote several non-series books under the name Frances Iles.

I had to ask myself why I had never heard of this author. And I still don't know the answer to that, except that his stories have not retained the popularity of Christie or Dorothy Sayers, for example. I've learned that he wrote ten books and a number of short stories featuring Roger Sheringham, amateur detective. At least one of these, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, is considered a classic.

One of the things I like best about this series is that they are not formulaic. Berkeley manages to find a different way to tell a story in almost every book. One of the things I like least is that the solving of the case is done largely by discussion of the facts, evidence, suggestions, and possibilities. There isn't a lot of action, although this improves as the series continues. To be honest, this type of story was a novelty in the 1920s, and much more exciting than it seems today in our age of "show don't tell."

Berkeley's strong point is the ability to pose as many different solutions to a mystery as there are people on the scene. He builds a strong logical case against every suspect. His weak point is open prejudice against Jews. I guess you'd have to say that this comes from his characters, but since it's not essential to the plot, it seems likely to reflect the opinion of the author.

Berkeley was only 32 when the first book was published. His characters are largely young adults, and readers who love Brit expressions and slang will have their wishes satisfied. Due to his talent for spinning multiple scenarios, the reader is always kept guessing until late in the stories.

Another amusing aspect of the books is that Sheringham's occupation is that of a writer of detective stories. He continually pokes fun at writers of detective stories, with perfect dry English wit.

Sheringham's character is that of a clever sleuth but one who thinks a bit more of himself than he should.

Although the writing style is dated, these books are a fascinating look into the time period of transition from the Victorian standards to "modern" lifestyles. It's also interesting to note how scientific police methods already were by that time, although obviously the technology was less advanced. They also provide a study of the evolution of detective novels.

Recurring characters of note:
Roger Sheringham: writer of mysteries and amateur sleuth
Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard: Sheringham's sometimes nemesis and sometimes friend

The Roger Sheringham Books/Stories

#1 The Layton Court Mystery, 1925
This is an early example of a locked-room mystery. An eclectic group of people are invited to the home of XXX. In the morning, their host's body is discovered in the library, with all doors and windows locked. He obviously committed suicide. Or did he? Of course Roger Sheringham doesn't agree with the police. For a first book, this is fine, although obviously the writer is less experienced. The mystery is solved almost entirely through discussion between Sheringham and a friend of his who becomes his "Watson."

#2 The Wychford Poisoning Case, 1926

#3 Roger Sherringham and the Vane Mysteries/ At Lover's Cave (US title), 1927

#4 The Silk Stocking Murders, 1928

#4 The Poisoned Chocolates, 1929

#5 The Top Storey Murder, 1931
A murder occurs in an apartment on the top floor of a house with eight units. It appears to be a robbery gone bad, as the victim was a woman who was rumored to hate banks and to have a small fortune hidden in her rooms. The police have their scientific theory, and Roger Sheringham has his psychological theory. This is a recurring theme of the series. It's impossible to tell which solution is the correct one until the very end.

#6 Murder in the Basement, 1932
In modern definitions, I would call this one a police procedural. Sheringham's role in intermittent, although he is the one who solves the mystery in the end. The badly decomposed body of a young woman is found under the floor in the basement of a house purchased by a newlywed couple. Inspector M applies all the power of police investigation to the problem, but there is little actual evidence pointing to anyone. The victim can not even be identified for several months. Hard work and luck eventually produce that bit of information. The Inspector calls on Sheringham to provide some psychological insights since he had briefly worked in the same place as the murdered girl. In response, Sheringham gives the Inspector a copy of a "novel" he has been working on which features the key suspects, giving insights into their personalities. Cold evidence and the application of psychology vie for top honors in reaching the solution.

#7 Jumping Jenny/ The Dead Mrs. Stratton (US title), 1933
This begins with a tongue-in-cheeck biography of Roger Sheringham. One can't help but wonder if it's a bit biographical of Anthony Berkeley.

The trope is the costume party (with a murder theme) gone awry. Each guest is to be dressed as an historical murderer or victim. It gets confusing if you don't have a handy list of such historic facts. I had to look up a bunch of them, and then had to try to remember who was dressed as whom. But this is a typical problem with the "party" setting- a lot of characters to keep straight. One of the guests commits suicide, or does she?

#8 Panic Party/ Mr Pidgeon's Island (US title), 1934

I have not yet been able to find this book.

There are a number of short stories published post-humously.

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