The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926) by Anthony Berkeley

Everyone was convinced that Mrs Bentley has murdered her husband. He died with his body riddled with arsenic, arsenic that was present in the fly papers that she had bought, and was found in his medicine, his food and his lemonade – basically everywhere apart from his toothpaste. The press think her guilty, even her lawyers think she committed murder. The only man who thinks otherwise is the young novelist Roger Sheringham.

A study of the psychology of crime, Sheringham is convinced of her innocence and sets out, with his chum Alec in tow, to prove her innocence, conducting a secretive investigation to bring the truth to light. The only problem is that perhaps Sheringham has too many ideas – you never know, one of them might be right…

The Wychford Poisoning Case was the second Roger Sheringham novel written by Anthony Berkeley (Cox) but it has been rarely reprinted since its initial publication. One reason for this is spanking.

Let me explain – the book features along with Sheringham and Alec Grierson (who, by the way, abandons his recently married wife to go on this escapade with Roger), Sheila Purefoy, a childhood friend of Alec, who is such a wilful individual, she can only be brought to heel by Alec putting her over his knee and giving her a good smacked bottom. I’d almost say that the chapter has to be read to be believed, but there’s a problem with that – you’d have to read the rest of the book too.

I found this book very hard to like. Alec is an unbearable character, a dinosaur of a character, even for the time of writing. Berkeley seemed to think his and Roger’s antics were hilarious, but they aren’t remotely so. Anyone who finds Anthony Bathurst an overbearing show-off (and there are those of you out there) can I introduce you to Roger Sheringham, a know-it-all (although he rarely does) in love with the sound of his own voice? Bathurst has charm, Sheringham however… I’ve not read any of Cox’s work beyond The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and I doubt I want to read anymore if they feature this arse.

The rest of the book is disappointing, too. Structured a little like The Poisoned Chocolates Case, where a solution is presented only to be shot down, but almost all of it is Roger, Alec and Sheila talking about matters, rather than getting on and actually doing much detecting. And the final solution is a crushing disappointment, as well as being utterly un-clued – the penultimate solution is much more interesting, although that isn’t saying much.

I did want to like this one, I really did. Is there a Roger Sheringham novel that will redeem this character for me?

8 comments

  1. The Layton Court Mystery, Chapter 24:

    “Roger sat through the first part of lunch in a species of minor trance. It was not until the necessity for consuming a large plateful of prunes and tapioca pudding, the two things besides Jews that he detested the most in the world…”

    It’s very hard to recommend Cox. Even if you’re able to dismiss stuff like this as “of the time”, all of his novels are just so mean-spirited and, I think, pretty obvious mysteries. He has a very particular way of structuring a surprise, so once it becomes clear the *kind* of twist he likes, it’s usually easy to work out what’s going to happen. Trial and Error is probably his best other than Poisoned Chocolates, but that’s not Sheringham and again it’s pretty easy to see the twist, given there has to be one.

    I’d say the best Cox-style mystery isn’t by Cox at all: Knives Out has a very similar structure to a lot of Cox’s work, but the (mostly) unpleasant cast is used to great effect.

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  2. Is there a Roger Sheringham novel that will redeem this character for me?
    Just the character? The Layton Court Mystery. It’s Berkeley’s first mystery and very lightly, almost transparently, plotted and heavily indebted to A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery. But you’ll probably like that early incarnation of Sheringham a lot more. Plot-wise, you at least have to give Jumping Jenny a shot, which I thought was better than The Poisoned Chocolates Case.

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  3. I think when I asked Martin Edwards for his Berkeley recommendations, apart from ‘Poisoned Chocolates Case’ and ‘Jumping Jenny’ – as I already owned those titles – he pointed to ‘Piccadilly Murder’, ‘Murder in the Basement’ and ‘Second Shot’. To date, of these titles, I’ve only read ‘Chocolates’, ‘Piccadilly’ and ‘Basement’ – and enjoyed all of them. Interestingly, the main sleuth in all three of them is actually Ambrose Chitterwick and not Roger Sheringham (who doesn’t appear at all in ‘Piccadilly’ and ‘Basement’, if I recall rightly). I had read ‘Vane Mystery’ featuring Sheringham, and yes, he was quite annoying there too, and the puzzle wasn’t especially good. It seems like there aren’t many strong Berkeley mystery novels apart from ‘Poisoned’, ‘Jenny’, ‘Basement’, ‘Piccadilly’ and ‘Second’.

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  4. And to be fair to Berkeley, I believe that when he created Sheringham he intended him to be an unsympathetic character – and he clearly succeeded, in this book at least.
    BTW, I think Sheringham is in Murder in the Basement, and this is confirmed by two reference sources. I can’t lay hands on my own copy and so can’t confirm my own memory, which tells me that Chitterwick isn’t in it.

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