First published: UK, Collins, 1930; US, Macmillan, 1930, as The Berkshire Mystery
This tale of a country-house burglary, recounted, like Collins’s Moonstone and Sayers’s Documents in the Case (also 1930, and, according to the TLS, published within a month of Bucks), almost entirely through the characters’ letters and notes, is certainly above average for the authors in terms of plotting and detection. Unfortunately, a bloodless crime (which, outside the short story, very few authors can handle successfully) is often dull. Still, there is enough drawing-room comedy to keep the reader entertained, even though not interested in the crime.
The connoisseur of detective stories, wearying of the conventional, will delight in the originality of this book. Here is no elaborate narrative, concealing vital clues beneath the guise of frankness, and allowing the detective to ponder in the dark solutions which he never discloses until the last chapter. On the contrary, every clue and every incident – letters, telegrams, conversations, warrants, newspaper reports – is set down faithfully exactly as and when it occurred, and the reader can follow the strange story of the spook and the stolen jewels just as though he were participating in a real mystery. Even Superintendent Wilson’s note-book is thrown open to inspection so that the reader can see at each stage of the story exactly how far the Inspector’s inquiries have got, and can pit his own wits against those of Scotland Yard.
Times Literary Supplement (26th June 1930):
This is an interesting experiment in the technique of the detective story. Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s detective, considered that if a case of his was published exactly as it occurred, he would be destroyed for ever as a hero of fiction. Nevertheless, this is an attempt to do precisely this, though we are told in advance that it is hoped that Wilson’s reputation will not suffer. The story is made up of letters, telegrams, reports, extracts from Wilson’s notebook, and other documents, together with the correspondence of a member of the house-party—the very name of house-party now inevitably suggests crime—where the crime was committed. But Mr. and Mrs. Cole have been very ingenious, and despite the altered method, the plot has not suffered. It has precisely the effect of any other good plot. The story concerns the theft of the Pallant emeralds, the property of a contractor whose conduct during the war gives Mr. and Mrs. Cole much food for scandal. The emeralds are stolen, together with other jewels, from the house, but in his hurried flight, the thief paused to break open the case in which they were found and threw the empty case aside. Moreover, on the evening before the theft, a poltergeist had given a performance to the house-party in which the contractor’s keys to his jewel box were crumpled up in his pocket. Thus there is an admirable mystery and the elucidation of it is both fair and skilful. Wilson has not lost his reputation either as a detective or as a hero of fiction.
Spectator (6th September 1930):
The story is told in the form of correspondence from and to, various members of the house-party where the burglary takes place and extracts from the notebooks of Superintendent Wilson, an old friend. Some of the house-party are also known to us, including Peter Gurney, the host, and Everard Blatchington. Between them they succeed in solving the mystery which surrounds the lady with the poltergeist and the theft of the Pallant Emeralds and other jewellery from the house to which her husband has brought her. All the clues are in the possession of the reader almost from the beginning of the story, but it is doubtful whether they will be cleverer than the superintendent, even with the help of the letters to which he had not then got access. The characters are human and intelligible, the plot bizarre yet credible for the most part, though the behaviour of Chris is not quite in character, and surely so remarkable a girl would be able to whistle from her youth up. This is almost the only weakness in a very entertaining story.
Outlook (W.R. Brooks, 16th April 1930, 80w):
The story is told chronologically, a method which allows every reader to do his own sleuthing, and makes for clarity and conciseness, with no sacrifice of readability.
Sat R of Lit (Eugene Reynal, 26th April 1930, 100w):
The story is unusual in style and ingenious in the handling of a complicated and original plot.
Books (Will Cuppy, 27th April 1930, 300w):
The collaborators have accomplished one of those juggling feats beyond the skill of the ordinary detective writer.
NY World (E.C. Beckwith, 27th April 1930, 150w)
The Coles have tried a rather unhappy technical experiment in their latest thriller which, viewed from any angle, is not a mystery story calculated to win new admirers… This seems to be the first Cole product on record which does not fulfil a high standard of detective fiction.
NY Times (18th May 1930, 120w):
As a mystery yarn it leaves much to be desired both in substance and in narrative manner.