The Second Shot (Anthony Berkeley)

  • By Anthony Berkeley
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1930; US: Doubleday, 1930

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I had my second dose of Pfizer on Monday. (Go and get vaccinated, if you haven’t already!) So it seemed appropriate to reread this Anthony Berkeley – my first by him in almost 15 years, I realise with some surprise.

The Second Shot was published in 1930. The year before, The Poisoned Chocolates Case exploded the idea of certainty and infallibility into dazzling shards; the next year, his ‘Francis Iles’ crime novel, Malice Aforethought, told the murder from the perspective of the killer.

The Second Shot is not a detective story at all, Berkeley explains in the Preface: “It is the story of a murder rather than the story of the detection of a murder.”

Berkeley argues that pure detection was passé; 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. It must develop into “the novel with a detective or a crime interest, holding its reader less by mathematical than by psychological ties. The puzzle element will no doubt remain, but it will become a puzzle of character rather than a puzzle of time, place, motive, and opportunity. The question will be, not, ‘Who killed the old man in the bathroom?’ but ‘What on earth induced X, of all people, to kill the old man in the bathroom?’”

Later critics – particularly those hostile to the puzzle plot – hailed this as a dramatic breakthrough, some even taking it as carte blanche to jettison the whodunnit altogether. (Julian Symons, for one, was disappointed that The Second Shot was conventional; he felt it didn’t live up to the preface.) But The Second Shot is less revolutionary than the manifesto; Berkeley is really calling for the detective novel, where the murder is driven by the characters, and where the reader feels emotionally engaged with the suspects, as well as intellectually engaged with the murder. And the detective novel was not new; in fact, John Dickson Carr suggested, Berkeley reiterated A.E.W. Mason’s approach of focusing on the characters and the emotional situation. Tellingly, Berkeley pointed to At the Villa Rose as a classic example of what he wanted to achieve. The “inside story of the murder … holds us just as firmly as did the actual process of detection”. Certainly, Jumping Jenny and Trial and Error excepted (or are they?), the later Berkeley novels are whodunnits; he finished his career with two admirable character and story-driven detective novels, Not to Be Taken (one of his best books) and Death in the House.

The need for more character interest in the detective story had become apparent by the early 1930s; in 1931, Dorothy L. Sayers (Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror: Second Series) argued that the detective story must move towards the straight novel, becoming “a novel with a detective interest [rather] than a detective-story pure and simple”. (One can well imagine Berkeley and Sayers having long discussions at Detection Club dinners about the artistic standing of the detective story.) In “The Present Status of the Mystery Story” (London Mercury, 1930), Sayers observed that for want of space, mystery writers had to tell the bare bones of the story, and leave out character-portraits and incidental ‘beauties’. Some writers like Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman had formularised or abandoned the emotional interest; others like J.J. Connington or S.S. Van Dine fled to the study of morbid mental conditions remote from the thought-processes of normal humanity. Sayers felt that the detective story’s intellectuality excluded ‘life and colour’, and so only appealed to a small proportion of the population; ideally, the detective story, like Greek tragedy or Shakespeare or the Victorian novel, would, through imagination and style, attain universality, appealing to both the intellectual and the common man.

Berkeley also complained that the pure problem made for an indifferent novel. Writers of detective stories, his narrator remarks, all make the same mistake: “Their stories are invariably told from the angle of the detached onlooker. This may make for a good puzzle, but it certainly does not make for human interest. And in the art of fiction, even in so low a form of it as the detective story, human interest should to my mind be a sine qua non.” Detective writers also begin their narratives with the discovery of the crime itself, not the preceding circumstances, which would be both fairer to the reader, and make a better novel.

Thus The Second Shot opens with a Prologue – a newspaper story, a policeman’s report – telling us that Eric Scott-Davies, “a popular and well-known man-about-town”, has been shot at Minton Farm, the residence of Mr. John Hillyard, the well-known detective-story writer; that he was killed during or after a staged murder mystery (based on Berkeley’s short story “Double Bluff”), set to test the wits of Hillyard and other local writers (including Morton Harrogate Bradley, from The Poisoned Chocolates Case); and that the main suspect is Cyril Pinkerton, who played the murderer in the game.

Mr. Pinkerton is an unprepossessing creature: nicknamed “Tapeworm” at school, he is pompous, pedantic, pince-nezed, and humourless. This fussy bachelor discovers, however, that he likes kissing girls.

The rest of the book is Mr. Pinkerton’s manuscript, describing the days leading to the murder. Everyone at Minton Farm had a reason to kill Scott-Davies. He planned to marry pretty, innocent Elsa Verity for her money; his hosts wanted to stop him; his ex-mistress and her jealous husband are also there; and his cousin Armorel inherits the country estate Scott-Davies plans to sell. And at least one of the guests plans to kill Scott-Davies. But right from the outset, Berkeley flirts, quite openly, with the possibility that he’s doing that Agatha Christie gimmick. Is Mr. Pinkerton the narrator the murderer, or is he only the main suspect?

“I have often thought of writing a detective story… However absorbing the detached onlooker’s interest may be (whether in fiction or in real life) in the detection of a crime, there is one person to whom that interest must be far more absorbing, not to say, vital, and that person is the criminal himself,” Mr. Pinkerton tells us in the second paragraph of his MS.

“I had privately determined, then, that one day I would write such a model detective story from the point of view of the criminal himself, showing his hopes and terrors as the process of detection progresses, the painful anxiety with which he would watch to see whether this or that fact, known only to himself, would be laid bare by the trackers on his trail, and his desperate attempts to extricate himself from the closing trap by laying new, false, and exonerating evidence. In the right hands such a book might be made a really outstanding piece of work; and I saw no reason why the hands should not be mine.

“Such was the academic theory I had formed at leisure. And now I have an opportunity of carrying it out in grim practice. For at the very moment while I am penning these words I am actually (it would be affectation to disguise the fact, even from myself) suspected of having murdered a fellow creature. I!”

Besides its narrative experiment, The Second Shot introduces ideas Berkeley would exploit brilliantly in Jumping Jenny and Trial and Error (and which had appeared in his first novel, the anonymously published Layton Court Mystery). The murder is laudable, a meritorious act. “His life was not only of no manner of use to the community but a positive menace to it; I knew that his continued existence meant to a great number of people far more than distress, it meant disaster,”  the murderer explains. “Obviously for the greater good of the greater number, Eric should be eliminated.” Roger Sheringham agrees, and fakes evidence to protect the person he believes committed the murder. Mr. Pinkerton is rather taken aback when his hosts believe he murdered Scott-Davies, and “come to thank me for shooting one of their guests”. “A pretty condition of affairs, indeed!” Mr. Pinkerton reflects, but he too considers Scott-Davies’s death execution (“I will not use the ugly word ‘murderer’ in such a worthy case”).

The Second Shot is not, perhaps, one of Berkeley’s major works; it is clever rather than brilliant, but Berkeley was cleverer than most of his British contemporaries. Roger Sheringham’s drawing-room summing-up is delightful, a parody of the standard confrontation scene: four people confess (falsely?) to the murder; Rogers shows several other people could have done it (but probably didn’t); he produces a solution that covers the facts, and clears everyone; then privately reveals that that explanation is wrong, and names a most unlikely person as the murderer. And then Berkeley twists the plot again. When I first read The Second Shot, in 2000, I knew some of the solution from Sayers II and from Barzun & Taylor. It doesn’t spoil one’s pleasure.

Review (2000)

One of the best-known of the Roger Sheringham cases, although not as good as The Poisoned Chocolates Case or Trial and Error.  The gimmick is not new; ROT13, va snpg, vg”f gur fnzr nf Puevfgvr’f Ebtre Npxeblq: gur thvygl zna jevgrf uvf nppbhag bs gur pevzr (bzvggvat uvf thvyg) rfcrpvnyyl sbe gur cbyvpr.

The chief drawback is that the narrator is singularly annoying—he is a fuddy-duddy moss and stamp collector, though he gradually loses his mincing ways.  Several of the characters start off as being perceived one way, but end up the other: the (aptly-named) Armorel Scott-Davies, heir of the classic victim, her cousin Eric, philanderer and scoundrel extraordinaire; and Elsa Verity, a girl too good to be true, loved by Scott-Davies for her money.

Several of Berkeley’s themes occur: the altruistic murderer (whom everyone compliments); the false dénouements (Sheringham becomes a miniature Crimes Circle in himself, as he constructs—and explodes—cases against all the suspects, prefiguring Jumping Jenny); and the trial and inquest.

The chapter in which the ‘murder game’ is plotted is excellent, and very amusing.  One wonders whether Ngaio Marsh read it while writing A Man Lay Dead, for in both books the man who plays the murderer in the game is the real murderer.

Blurb (UK)

1930 Hodder & Stoughton

John Hillyard, the owner of Minton Deeps Farm, is a writer of detective stories.  Some of his friends, who are staying at the farm, decide to amuse themselves by testing his capabilities as a detective in practice instead of only on paper, and they therefore arrange a mock murder; one of the party is to pretend to be murdered, and one to be the murderer, and John Hillyard is to find out who is the pseudo-criminal; proper clues are to be laid and the whole thing made to resemble a real murder as closely as possible.  In addition to John Hillyard, other detective story writers who live in the district are invited to try their hands.  The game is played, apparently as arranged, but the detective story writers prove dismal failures at their own game; not one of them is able to detect anything.  But after the game is over two mysterious shots are heard which have no part in it.  Somebody has taken advantage of the farce to shoot Eric Scott-Davies in sober earnest.  Enter the police – and Roger Sheringham.

Blurb (US)

1930 Doubleday

Roger Sheringham, that blithe, beer-drinking detective, solved the difficult problems in The Piccadilly MurdersThe Poisoned Chocolates CaseThe Silk Stocking Murders, and other best-selling mysteries, but in this new book the most complex and baffling of all his cases confronts him.  It began with the death of Eric Scott-Davies at a house party in the country, where John Hillard and his guests were amusing themselves with a game known as “Murder”, in which a fake murder was staged and false clues supplied.  But Scott-Davies, who should have been only playing dead, was really so, with a bullet hole in his back.  One by one Sheringham sorted out the clues – a smoke-blackened twig, a withered rose in a clearing, the noise of a board creaking at midnight – and then found himself with four confessions of murder on his hands, instead of one.  By all odds Roger Sheringham’s greatest case, and Anthony Berkeley’s greatest book.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (25 December 1930): Mr. Berkeley takes the reader into his confidence in the dedication of this new Roger Sheringham story and explains that it is different from those which have gone before in that he has tried a new technique.  Believing that the appeal of a detective story lies rather in the successful presentation of the essential characters than the mere “puzzle element”, he hands over the story after a brief prologue to Cyril Pinkerton, one of the “kingpins” of the series of rather involved circumstances which bring the police and Roger Sheringham to Minton Deep Farm.  Here lives John Hillyard, a detective story writer, and near at hand live other novelists of this persuasion.  It is suggested that a mock murder shall be staged to test the detective powers of Hillyard and his friends.  “Murderer” and “murderee” are fixed upon, the scene is rehearsed and proper clues are left behind, but when the jest is found to have provided the opportunity for somebody really earnest in the matter of removing Eric Scott-Davies, all the amateur detectives tail and call in the official police.  Certainly the members of the house-party are real people, and none is more real than the priggish, self-satisfied Cyril Pinkerton, whose ridiculous dignity and habit of taking himself too seriously on every occasion lead to several very humorous incidents in the course of the story.  The slipshod reader will be puzzled at various stages of the narrative, but the careful one will agree that Mr. Berkeley’s experiment has proved most successful, and that he has played fair.

Spectator (Margaret Cole, 14th February 1931, 20w)

Books (Will Cuppy, 3rd May 1931, 200w)

NY Times (Bruce Rae, 3rd May 1931, 80w): It all works out quite smoothly and the reader meanwhile has had ample entertainment.

Outlook (W.R. Brooks, 13th May 1931, 100w): In spite of its burlesque elements, and the priggishness of its hero, The Second Shot is a very ingenious yarn, and will give you a series of surprises.

Sat R of Lit (W.C. Weber, 18th July 1931, 120w)

Bookm (December 1931, 80w)

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): This, ostensibly the seventh by B., is the one that contains a preface-dedication setting forth the intention to take the detective story into the realm of psychology and atmosphere.  The result is not so impressive as the programme.  The first-person narrative of a sissified youth who yet manages to fool Roger Sheringham and marry an attractive girl is long-drawn-out and tires the reader by turning upon everybody, more than once, the searchlight of suspicion and “proof”.

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6 thoughts on “The Second Shot (Anthony Berkeley)

  1. What’s really amusing is that the opponents of the puzzle-plot detective story were actually the ones who were hopelessly old-fashioned and stuck in the past. They were in fact calling for a return to the good old days of the Victorian sensation novel of seventy years earlier. “Let’s go back to writing crime novels the way Wilkie Collins wrote them in the 1860s.” The psychological crime novel is entirely a 19th century concept. It’s as Victorian as crinolines.

    Dorothy L. Sayers was also keen to return to the past. She wanted to write Victorian comedies of manners. That’s what she tried to do with Gaudy Night. She wanted to write the sorts of novels she’d admired growing up in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

    The opponents of the puzzle-plot mystery were literary reactionaries. The puzzle-plot mystery was much more modernist than the psychological crime novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should put those Sayers articles online!

      I think Sayers and Berkeley were right that the detective story benefited from a fillip of character, atmosphere, and style. Too many of the Humdrum books do lack individuality; Sayers and Berkeley felt it could offer more. And the detective story should be (I think) both good fiction and good detection. At its best, it offers the imagination of Innes or Mitchell, Carr’s atmosphere, adventure, and (melo)drama, or the character-driven mysteries of Blake or ’40s Christie. But, as you (and Xavier) suggest, a lot of the late 20th-century stuff is neo-Victorian – Barbara Vine (good as some of them are) are really triple-deckers. (Aren’t some of them even set in the 19th century?) They’re more old-fashioned, actually, than Sayers; like Collins or Dickens, she wanted to integrate plot, story, and theme, but Murder Must Advertise (say) feels fresher and livelier and more up-to-date than Original Sin.


      1. You’re right, too, that the puzzle-plot was a modernist genre. Wasn’t that one of the reasons why the poets and the highbrows of the day loved them?

        T.S. Eliot was a famous example, and you couldn’t get much more high-brow than Eliot.

        I think there was some truth to the idea that the puzzle-plot mystery might run out of steam. But the best answer to that was not necessarily to retreat into the past. An alternative solution would have been to embrace the modernism of the detective story and push it further, which is (ironically) what Berkeley tried to do with things like multiple solutions.

        There were other alternatives, such as that adopted by F. Van Wyck Mason in The Castle Island Case (which I reviewed recently) – write a novel but include hundreds of photographs to take the place of descriptive passages and have the vital clues be contained in the photos. It was gimmicky but it was at least experimental.

        And it seems to me that what has been missing from crime fiction in the past 60 years is a willingness to experiment. Writers cling to the safety and security of the 19th century psychological crime novel.


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