Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Layton Court Mystery, 1925 - Anthony Berkeley

Anthony Berkeley Cox was one of the great innovators of the Golden Age of detective fiction, an enigmatic and bizarre man who wrote detective stories from 1925 to 1939 under several pen-names, including Francis Iles. The Layton Court Mystery, originally published anonymously in 1925, was written in honor to the father, a great fan of detective fiction. Berkeley wrote it for pure entertainment and he introduced his most famous detective, Roger Sheringham: anti-Semitic, rude, fallible and pretentious, Sheringham was founded on an offensive person that Berkeley once knew, but he shared some characteristics both with his creator and the amateur detective Philip Trent, created by Edmund Bentley in Trent’s Last Case (1913). 
As Berkeley wrote in the dedication:
"I have tried to make the gentleman who eventually solves the mystery as nearly as possible as he might be expected to do in real life. That is to say, he is very far removed from a sphinx and he does make a mistake or two occasionally. I have never believed very much in those hawk-eyed, tight-lipped gentry who pursue their silent and inexorable way straight to the heart of things without ever once overbalancing or turning aside after false goals." 
Apparently, The Layton Court Mystery is a classic country-house mystery: it takes place in a English country house, a property rented for a week end by the rich and ambiguous Victor Stanworth; there is a group of guests and a murder perpetrated in a locked room. Alec Grierson, a Sheringham’s friend, takes on the role of Watson. Moreover, the detection rules the whole story: Berkeley reports interrogations, researches, discoveries, true and false deductions, physical and psychological clues. Because of these reasons, some parts of the novel appear long-winded, with many useless conversations between Roger and Alec that add nothing to the plot. The story contains funny situations (the wrong deductions, the "dispute" with the bull), but has also many ingenuousness and improbabilities (how could a man kill himself shooting a bullet in his forehead?). 
As yet, the novel seems a simple whodunit, but I think there is more. Berkeley had probably read Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913), Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922) and MacDonald’s The Rasp (1924), but he did not copy anything: even though the story is not very original, the novel is well-plotted and fair with the reader, who has all clues to solve the mystery. Playing with the rules of the game and creating a detective who is an antithesis of Sherlock Holmes, Berkeley reveals both the qualities and the limits of the “whodunit” frame, and seems undermine (unconsciously?) the “scaffolding” of the classical mystery. The book shows the mastery of Berkeley as a plotter, in which you can see the bones of a revolutionary talent, even if it is far from being a masterpiece. The locked room problem has a disappointing mechanical solution, but the identity of the murder is a real surprise, which discloses the parodic nature of the novel. Especially in 1925 the solution must have been astonishing, and it is certainly the best device of the book. Martin Edwards has brilliantly pointed out that “Berkeley’s knack of coming up with an ingenious mystery solution that proves mistaken was unparalleled, and afforded him endless opportunities to indulge in ironic reflection on the nature of detective work” (Anthony Berkeley's Golden Age Gothic Follies, in Mysteries Unlocked, 2014, p. 102). I subscribe to his claim.
The ploy will be brilliantly modified, some months later, by Agatha Christie in her superb The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

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