The Second Shot (Anthony Berkeley)

By Anthony Berkeley

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1930; US, Doubleday, 1930

Blurb (UK)

Berkeley - The Second Shot.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

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)

Berkeley - The Second Shot US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Roger Sheringham, that blithe, beer-drinking detective, solved the difficult problems in The Piccadilly Murders, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, The 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.

My review

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; SPOILER, in fact, it”s the same as Christie’s Roger Ackroyd: the guilty man writes his account of the crime (omitting his guilt) especially for the police.

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.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (25th 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.


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.