The Layton Court Mystery (Anthony Berkeley)

  • By Anthony Berkeley
  • First published: UK: Herbert Jenkins, 1925, by “?”; US: Doubleday, 1929

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The author’s first novel, published anonymously, and more inspired by E.C. Bentley and A.A. Milne’s old school reliance on the simplest of situations and characters than later books; hence, an unusual and atypical beginning.  Characterisation and narrative drive are both inferior to late tales; instead there is a lot of chit-chat between the maddeningly entertaining Sheringham (an ancestor of Gervase Fen’s?) and Alec Grierson, who, in the virtual absence of other characters, carry the tale.  This is amateur detection at its most amateur, but also at its best: two friends doing it for the sport of the thing, with abundant energy and enthusiasm compensating for the slow pace.  The solution is quite surprising, anticipating as it does The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Blurb (UK)

Berkeley - The Layton Court Mystery w panel.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Mr. Victor Stanworth, a genial old man of sixty, apparently without a care in the world, is entertaining a party of friends at his summer residence, Layton Court.  One morning he is found shot in the library.  Was it suicide or murder?

Roger Sheringham, one of the guests, determines to solve the mystery.  He sets about it as he might do in real life.  He is not one of those hawk-eyed, tight-lipped detectives who pursue their inexorable and silent way to the very heart of things.  He makes a mistake or two occasionally, but he does not conceal any of the evidence and the reader has the same data to go upon as the detective, and is carried breathlessly through to the end.

An original murder story.

Blurb (US)

Roger Sheringham, whose brilliant deductions and cheerful readiness to take meteoric chances brought the Silk Stocking Murderer to justice, solves a case even more difficult in this exciting new story.

The coroner had pronounced Victor Stanworth’s death suicide.  The case was over but for Roger’s noticing that the bullet wound was in a position that would have made suicide decidedly awkward.

Roger Sheringham is as human as he is brilliant – and his cases are as notable for their humour as for their baffling excitement.  Mastermind of the Crime Club discovered Sheringham in London – brought his famous case, The Silk Stocking Murders, to America, and delighted thousands of mystery lovers.  The Layton Court Mystery is even better – and even more thousands will acclaim it as one of the year’s great mysteries.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (5 March 1925): It is a pleasure to chance upon a mystery that really mystifies and a detective who really detects.  Mr. Victor Stanworth, a genial old man without a care in the world, is entertaining a party of friends at his summer residence, Layton Court.  In the second chapter he is found shot in the library, which is, as we all know, the traditional scene of such discoveries.  The door and all the windows of this room are locked from the inside, and there is a suicide’s letter spread out upon the victim’s desk.  Roger Sheringham, however, is not satisfied with the suicide theory.  He industriously collects evidence of murder, each item of which, for our benefit, he retails to his friend, Alec Grierson.  These successive recapitulations grow tedious, and Roger’s facetiousness is a trial to the reader; but the author is certainly to be commended for his skill in construction and for the remarkable ingenuity of his plot.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 10th February 1929, 80w): A continuously readable and exciting guessing game.  The author specialises in honest clews and a natural atmosphere.

NY World (10th March 1929, 130w): Brace Roger up, Mr. Berkeley, we had reason to expect better stuff from him.