First published: UK, Collins, 1926, by “?”; US, Doubleday, 1930
In this exciting book the author breaks away from the usual artificial atmosphere of the conventional detective story and substitutes that of a typical cause célèbre in real life, sensationalised by the newspapers and with the guilt or innocence of the suspected person on every one’s lips. Mrs. Bentley has been arrested for the murder of her husband by poisoning him with arsenic, and the evidence against her is overwhelming. Roger Sheringham, to whom psychological values are as important as police clues, is convinced of her innocence, and sets out to prove it. After an exciting series of developments the dénouement is as unexpected as it is logical.
WHO bought the arsenic?
John Bentley had died of arsenic poisoning. Arsenic was found in his medicine, in his food, in his lemonade, and in a large package in a bureau drawer. Fly papers were found soaking in water (from which arsenic is obtained). All evidence pointed to Mrs. Bentley as having poisoned her husband, and everyone, including her lawyers, believed her guilty; everyone except ROGER SHERINGHAM, the brilliant young novelist with a bent for criminal investigation.
And while Mrs. Bentley lay under the shadow of the gallows Roger followed clue after clue that led him through a maze of intrigue, villainy and treachery to a revelation so astounding that it shook the foundations of the entire system of British justice.
Berkeley’s second novel is not one of his best books. In the first place, it is clichéd: unfaithful French wife falsely accused of murdering her rat-like husband, and the detective attempts to prove her innocent. In the second, the dialogue is very painful, Roger is thoroughly obnoxious, the author takes too much pleasure in spanking, and his world view is thoroughly misogynistic. In the third place, the solution is a) a let-down, and b) pulled out of a hat.
Times Literary Supplement (18th November 1926):
Mr. John Bentley died and his body was found to contain almost enough arsenic to kill a regiment. He had recently quarrelled with his French wife for having been unfaithful to him, and she had bought a supply of arsenical flypapers just before he was first taken ill. She said that flypapers were to be used in the preparation of a cosmetic for her own use, but it was proved that she had put arsenic into her suffering husband’s Bovril, and the coroner’s jury did not mince matters in its verdict. Mr. Roger Sheringham, a novelist and student of humanity, thinks that there was too much arsenic in the dead man and feels that an economical housewife would never have overdone poisoning to such an extent – in fact, that arsenic is more properly a condiment or seasoning and not a diet. He therefore starts an investigation of his own and arrives at a startling though quite possible solution. But that it is not the right solution is in due course made clear.
NY Evening Post (Dashiell Hammett, 26th April 1930, 80w):
His book runs a brisk, entertaining race to a flabby and unsporting end.
Books (Will Cuppy, 11th May 1930, 150w):
This is a clever reconstruction of a classic riddle, well above the average.