In 1929, Anthony Berkeley published The Poisoned Chocolates Case, the fifth of his ten mystery novels featuring dilettante sleuth Roger Sheringham. In that book, a group of friends gather together to play armchair detective, each proposing a different solution to a current murder case. We never actually meet the main players in that case; instead, the members of the Crimes Circle just . . . talk about it. The result, is mystifying, meta-fictional, and magnificent.
But Berkeley had already experimented with this form of storytelling in his second Sheringham adventure, 1926’s The Wychford Poisoning Case. In this tale, Roger is staying with Alec Grierson, his friend from the debut novel The Leyton Court Mystery, and his wife. The newspapers are full of the story of Mrs. Bentley, who is on trial for poisoning her husband with arsenic. Sheringham has made a study of all the information he can get his hands on, and he has formed a theory that Mrs. Bentley just might be innocent. He proposes to Alec that they act on his suspicions and – just possibly – save an innocent woman from the gallows.
As you will learn if you Tony Medawar’s concise introduction to the Classic British Crime edition – or by checking out The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards’ history of the Detection Club – Anthony Berkeley was fascinated by true crime and based the poisoning in the village of Wychford on the Maybrick case. James Maybrick was a Victorian merchant whose life and death have the makings of, er, an excellent book. At 42, he married an 18-year-old girl, but both of them carried on affairs. The medication he had to take for malaria made him addicted to arsenic. His many business travels and infidelities strained his marriage, and when he died suddenly and it was deemed that poison was the cause, his wife was tried and convicted. Eventually, she was released and lived out her life as a productive citizen, although she never saw her two children again. Even more interesting, some have theorized from comments made in his diary that Maybrick might have been Jack the Ripper, although others believe the true culprit was more likely to have been his brother.
Giving of these people the fictionalized treatment would have made for a fascinating addition to the character list. According to Berkeley himself, Wychford was his attempt to experiment with a psychological mystery. Alas, the only psychology we really delve into here is that of Roger, Alec, and their partner in crime-solving, Alec’s younger cousin Sheila Purefoy. And if we want to delve deeply into their psychology, we find that Sheringham is an overweening egotist who can’t shut up, Alec is a bully with a short fuse, and Sheila . . . well, I’m not going to say anything negative about Sheila. She’s doing the best she can in a sexist world where her cousin can take her over his knee and spank her merely for offering her opinions – and do so with the enthusiastic approbation of both her parents, who actually encourage this “comic” abuse. And the saddest thing? It works.
I’m not going to get into a long tirade about the rampant sexism here, which is all done with a gigantic twinkle in the eye. My friend and fellow blogger/book club member Kate from Cross Examining Crime goes into this aspect of the book in some detail here. That’s not my problem with Wychford. My problem with Wychford is that it’s a bore. I get the Jeeves and Wooster humor. I even clung to a few choice sidebars that Roger and Alec take in their endless conversations about the case going on outside of their sphere, like the difference between the French and British legal systems:
“All the French are concerned with is getting at the truth, and they don’t care a cuss how they get there; we’re mostly concerned with protecting the interests of every person or thing connected with the case, from the prisoner himself down through the barristers to the usher’s cat. The French confront an accused person with the corpse of his supposed victim and watch him with a magnifying-glass to see what his reactions are; we spend a couple of hours arguing whether a certain piece of evidence, about which the jury perfectly well know already, is to be admitted formally as evidence or not. The French go about it like a business; we go about it like a game – with the prisoner’s life like a prize for the cleverer side.”
Sidebar (hell, if Berkeley can do it, so can I!!!): I remember being a juror on a murder trial, and at the start, the prosecution wanted to introduce the mug shot of the defendant to the jury. The defense saw this as inflammatory and as they laid their hand on the shoulder of this preppily-dressed, bespectacled young man, they argued that we should not see the picture that the prosecutor was waving around so that we could see it. (The defense won that point . . . but how do you forget the image of the wild-eyed prisoner that we were “accidentally” permitted to see?)
Anyway, it’s not like there aren’t some amusing passages here, notably Roger’s flirtatiousness with a witness to the crime, but after a while, Alec’s snide undercutting of Roger’s logorrhea takes on a certain sameness. Sheila gets some nice digs in at Alec’s expense, but then he advances menacingly and threatens to smack her . . . (stand at the mirror and say “stuck in its time” three times while listening to the Masterpiece Theatre theme music and you’ll be fine). In the end, in true GAD fashion, we get a false solution followed by a real one. Both of these are probably my two least favorite types of denouements for a murder mystery, and after enduring two hundred pages of witty banter to get to the end, I felt especially aggrieved.
Given the structure of this one, which makes the psychological aspects of the novel feel several degrees removed from the action, the sexual violence masquerading as farce, and the ending over which I predict most mystery fans will issue an angry snort, it’s no wonder that this novel hasn’t seen the light of day since it’s first publication or that Berkeley himself pretty much disavowed it. As Kate will tell you, others have had a more positive reaction, so feel free to read this and take a side.
Meanwhile, I’m going to plead with my book club for a better selection in July. Any ideas???