This is an adaptation of my thesis, University of Sydney, 2012.
Anthony Berkeley (Cox) was an enigma. He founded the Detection Club, the peak body of British detective writers, but, more than any other writer, was most responsible for the dismantling of the genre.
His work, as William Bradley Strickland (“Anthony Berkeley Cox”, in Earl F. Bargainnier, Twelve Englishmen of Mystery, 1984) argues, is “a bridge from the formal puzzle stories of the British Golden Age to the post-war realistic studies in crime and criminal psychology”, halfway between Agatha Christie and Julian Symons (Malcolm J. Turnbull, Elusion Aforethought: The Life and Writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox, 1996).
There is no doubting his importance. His admirers rank Berkeley with Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (Turnbull), whereas even those who are more dubious must perforce acknowledge the excellence of such works as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), The Piccadilly Murder (1930), Jumping Jenny (1933), Trial and Error (1937), and Not to Be Taken (1938).
Berkeley’s earliest novels continue E. C. Bentley’s tradition of satirising the genre. The intentionally obnoxious amateur detective, Roger Sheringham, frequently fails to solve the cases he investigates. Berkeley takes Bentley’s use of the multiple solution even further, insisting that the same clues can be interpreted to mean very different things. In The Poisoned Chocolates Case, one of the characters complains that in detective stories
it is frequently assumed that any given fact can admit of only one single deduction, and that invariably the right one. Nobody else is capable of drawing any deductions at all but the author’s favourite detective, and the ones he draws (in the books where the detective is capable of drawing deductions at all which, alas, are only too few) are invariably right.
The members of Sheringham’s Crime Circle use reason to prove, for instance, that an innocent member of the group is the murderer, that the murderer is the detective himself, or that the wrong person was killed. At one level, this can be read as dismantling the rational approach of the detective story. And yet there is a grain of truth in each solution, so that the final solution is a synthesis of the previous solutions, with the chaff sifted out from the wheat to leave the kernel of truth. Thus, although Berkeley criticises the infallible deductions of the Great Detective, and also believes that evidence can mislead if looked at the wrong way, he also believes that it is possible to arrive at the truth, not by any one school or methodology, but by combining what is best in each approach, rejecting what does not fit and keeping what does: an approach that combines R. Austin Freeman‘s scientific method with G.K. Chesterton‘s intuitive approach.
In other works, even when Sheringham fails to solve a problem (and, in some cases, he is even unaware of the fact that he has failed), the reader is always provided with the solution, even if as an ironic twist at the end; the truth may not be known to the detective, but there is a truth not to be known. Moreover, although Strickland argues that the work shows Berkeley’s “growing dissatisfaction” with the genre, and “the weakening foundations of the Golden Age puzzle story”, a hungry public would continue to devour the orthodox detective story for at least the next fifteen years.
Where Berkeley becomes problematic is his emphasis on characterisation and naturalism. In the famous preface to The Second Shot (1930), he argues that pure detection was a dead end; instead, the detective story must concern itself with character and psychology.
The old-fashioned “crime puzzle pure and simple, relying entirely upon plot and without any added attractions of character, style, or even humour” was on its last legs. Therefore, the detective story must develop into “the novel with a detective or a crime interest, holding its reader less by mathematical than by psychological ties”. Most critics automatically see this as a dramatic breakthrough, and hail the move towards psychological naturalism as a welcome development.
Such a judgement – which, like all aesthetic judgements, is a matter of taste – must be taken with caution.
Berkeley’s accomplishment, in fact, was less significant than it appears. As John Dickson Carr (“The Grandest Game in the World”, published in The Door to Doom and Other Detections, ed. Douglas G. Greene, 1991) suggests, he is merely reiterating A. E. W. Mason. It is telling that he points to Mason’s At the Villa Rose and Freeman’s Singing Bone (1912) as classic examples of what he wants to achieve. Berkeley would, as Strickland and Turnbull observe, increasingly concentrate on characterisation and psychology rather than on the plot.
Both Jumping Jenny and Trial and Error are black comedies in which the reader sees the criminal commit the crime. Rather than focusing on detection, the works concern themselves with the attempt of the party guests to convince the police that the victim committed suicide (Jenny), or with the apparent murderer Mr. Chitterwick’s efforts to have himself convicted of murder (by prosecuting himself in the law courts).
The work in which Berkeley was best able to successfully integrate characterisation with plot was Not to Be Taken, his penultimate detective story, and written after the modern writers of the 1930s had appeared. It is a village poisoning affair, told from the perspective of the victim’s friend, whose wife was involved with the murder victim, and ends deliberately inconclusively, with the narrator unsure what to do with the truth.
The problem inherent in concentrating on characterisation rather than on plot is evident in Panic Party (1934). The novel has an arresting situation (a group of characters are marooned on an island and revert to savagery), but is badly let down by the fact that the murderer’s identity is an anti-climax, and Sheringham fails to explain how he solved the mystery. Berkeley would prove an important influence on Gladys Mitchell, Nicholas Blake and John Dickson Carr, but they would learn from his mistakes.
NOTE: See, for instance, Mitchell’s Speedy Death (1929) and Death at the Opera (1934); Blake’s Beast Must Die (1938) and Head of a Traveller (1949); and Carr’s Seat of the Scornful (1941).
Cox is celebrated for the crime novels written as Francis Iles. These completely abandon the mystery and detection element, and focus on a person caught up in a crime or a tangled emotional situation: the murderer in Malice Aforethought (1931), the victim in Before the Fact (1932), and a young man in an adulterous relationship in As for the Woman (1939). The approach came to be known as “Ilesian”, although this sort of story had been written before Iles [NOTE 2], and as such was not as innovative as later critics believed.
NOTE 2: For instance, by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, C.S. Forester, and Oliver Onions. Sayers (Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror: Second Series, 1931) saw Iles’s experiment as an offshoot of Freeman’s inverted detective stories, and related to the American writer Isabel Ostrander’s Ashes to Ashes (1919), in which the action was seen from the murderer’s perspective. Iles would in turn inspire such writers as Milward Kennedy, Richard Hull, Lewis Robinson, and C.E. Vulliamy (Anthony Rolls), as well as the post-WWII school of psychological suspense writers that includes Julian Symons, Patricia Highsmith, and Ruth Rendell.
Although significant for the history of the crime novel, these are not detective stories. Even though many writers from Henry Wade to Michael Innes and H.R.F. Keating wrote both forms, they are separate genres. To judge Freeman or Carr, as later critics would insist on doing, by the standards of Highsmith or Simenon, is to make a false comparison.
Berkeley, it has been argued, also introduced naturalism to the genre. Turnbull admires “the author’s often savage dissection of his character’s idiosyncrasies and his skilful delineation of their emotional osmosis”, and argues that this “fostered an increased emphasis on characterisation amongst writers of the more orthodox roman policier“. Whether this is a good thing is debatable, as we shall see when we examine Symons and Rendell.
In Berkeley’s case, naturalism is all too often sourness and contempt for humanity. Cox himself was a misanthrope, a misogynist, a miser, and a crank (Turnbull, 1996). He specialised in the depiction of miserable people leading drab lives full of malice and envy; Strickland and Turnbull both note that there are few “engaging and sympathetic characters” in Berkeley. This is reflected in “his cynical, bleak, not to say black, humour” (Strickland). Unlike Roald Dahl, Saki, Evelyn Waugh, or even Tom Sharpe, much of whose humour is similarly cruel or grotesque, Berkeley often seems mean-spirited rather than amusing. It is hardly surprising that the more humane Sayers (Sunday Times, 3 June 1934) objected to the “inhumanity” of Panic Party and Berkeley’s “sneering hatred of his own puppets”. Witness the gloating description in Murder in the Basement (1932) of an unattractive woman popping a pimple, almost as rancid as Swift’s ‘Lady’s Dressing-room’. The last Iles novel, As for the Woman (1939), has been described as “a quite depressing work, peopled by unrelievedly drab or mediocre beings” (Turnbull).
Berkeley’s work shows the danger into which straying too far from the detective problem and emphasising naturalism and characterisation over plotting and imaginative storytelling can lead authors. Berkeley’s work proved highly influential on the post-WWII generation of crime novelists, but it ultimately proved detrimental to the detective story.