The Silk Stocking Murders (Anthony Berkeley)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A really good early Sheringham and a distinct improvement on its three predecessors.  Berkeley has worked out how to combine amateur detection, a straightforward yet mystifying plot, and believable characters to make an extremely readable whole.  Roger Sheringham – one of the most agreeable straight amateurs because he is always enthusiastic and ready to give things a go, enjoying it (unlike poor Nigel Strangeways, who became more morbidly introspective as he aged) – investigates a series of stocking suspenders which, although passed off as suicide, he discovers are murder, for no woman would hang herself.  To prove his thesis, he works more closely with the police than in any other book except Top Storey Murder, and with certain other interested parties – a two-pronged approach which illustrates Berkeley’s interest in different approaches to detection.  Of course, “imaginative psychological methods” are more successful than police routine.  The murderer is caught by a very effective (if rather callous and high-handed?) trap which vindicates French methods.  His identity is a distinct surprise, for he is a major character whom we do not consider because he figures so prominently in another role (c.f. The Layton Court Mystery, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, The Piccadilly Murder and Trial and Error) – a device which Christie would adapt and make her own throughout the early 1930s.  The method (which bears some similarities to that in Jumping Jenny) really is clever (and was unfortunately shown to work in the 1930s), relying on the lethal properties of such everyday items as a door and a chair – and makes the case a hard nut to crack.

Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders (1935) was inspired by this book: ABC = Anthony Berkeley Cox?; silk stockings; victims’ relations play active part in detection; SPOILER suspicion falls on detective’s colleague; camouflaged murder among many crimes; identity of murderer.

Blurb (UK)

This is a study of a type of murder (fortunately rare in this country) in which the criminal, though sane in every other respect, suffers from a homicidal mania, the murders he commits thus affording no motive for the police to investigate.  Roger Sheringham, who finds himself drawn into the case as a consequence of his connection with The Daily Courier, realises this, and though officially attached to Scotland Yard for the time being, follows an unorthodox line of his own, while Chief Inspector Moresby, his old rival, who is in charge of the investigations, relies on Scotland Yard’s conventional methods.  Two entirely different lines of detection, both attempting to bring to justice an unusually dangerous criminal, are thus shown in contrasting operation, and round this main theme is woven a story of suspicion, pursuit and cunning.

Blurb (US)

The first of the silk stocking murders was thought a suicide when an unknown chorus girl was found strangled with her own stocking.  Roger Sheringham, popular novelist and amateur detective, worked out a different theory.  The second of the silk stocking murders strengthened his conviction, and the third – that of Lady Ursula, brilliant, modern, sophisticated, fiancée of wealthy James Pleydell – confirmed it with a vengeance.

Roger Sheringham is a name new to American mystery readers, but he is destined to become famous.  He is human – he is brilliant – he makes mistakes – he takes the wrong people into his confidence – he takes considerable liquid refreshment – and altogether he is a highly original and engaging young sleuth.  In this book he arrives at so daring a solution that he has to test it by faking a murder – and the end is as startling as the problem is extraordinary.

Roger Sheringham and his creator, Anthony Berkeley, are discoveries of The Crime Club.  In England for several years the Sheringham books have been immensely popular, and it is a safe prediction that they will delight thousands of readers here.  The mysteries are ingenious without being unnatural – the characters are not only credible, but entirely delightful – the stories not only thrilling, but human and gorgeously funny.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (7 June 1928): The dedication of this book, a masterpiece among dedications, indicates that Anthony Berkeley is the alias used for purposes of criminal detection by the well-known humorous writer A. B. Cox.  In this book he believes in laying on the horrors with a trowel, the murders provided number some five or six, and the murderer is more horrible because wider in his range of victims than the ordinary villain.  The tale will appeal more to those who wish for vicarious excitement than to those who like their detective stories to stick to the probabilities.  The device used by the amateur investigator, Roger, to catch the murderer would have been a good plan if he had had the suspicions he afterwards came to feel.  As it was he embarked on a one-in-a-thousand chance, and many readers of these stories particularly dislike success attending such gambles.  It would have strengthened the story if suspicion of the murderer had been aroused earlier and provided a basis for the counter-scheme to Scotland Yard; but no one who reads the story will complain much of a fare which combines so much vivid sensationalism with so much sprightly and urbane pleasantry.

Boston Transcript (6th October 1928, 280w): The Silk Stocking Murders has few claims to distinction.  It is not a bad piece of work by any means, and taken as just another mystery tale will serve pleasantly to pass an autumn evening.  Without the implied recognition of the Crime Club label, it would pass well enough as a run-of-the-mine detective story; in the limelight it reveals too many flaws.