Like my introduction to Cyril Hare, I originally came across the work of Anthony Berkeley in an anthology, and later in a joint novel produced by members of the Detection Club, The Floating Admiral (he wrote the concluding part, tying up all the loose ends). Writing in the 1920s, his detective stories have a tone of high jinks and lack of seriousness, and The Layton Court Mystery is no exception. It was Berkeley’s first novel, and features Roger Sheringham, a novelist, as the detective.
It is summer time at Layton Court, being rented for a few months by Victor Stanworth, a genial and wealthy gentleman of sixty. Staying there are his sister-in-law (somewhat peculiarly called Lady Stanworth, though as the daughter of an earl she really ought to be referred to as Lady Margaret Stanworth), his secretary Major Jefferson, a friend of Lady Stanworth’s, Mrs Shannon and her daughter Barbara, Mrs Plant, Alexander Grierson (more commonly referred to as Alec) and Roger Sheringham. When Mr Stanworth is found dead on the morning the book begins, it looks like a case of suicide – there is the letter, after all, and his fingers around the gun. Yet Roger is unconvinced, and decides to prove that it was murder: not only that, but given all the evidence, he seems to think that it was done by one of the members of the house-party. Alec acts as his Watson, and tries to damp some of Roger’s rather excessive enthusiasm, as well as pointing out flaws in his reasoning.
Berkeley has a lot of fun with the concept – Sheringham is astute at deducing what must have happened from clues left in the library where Stanworth was found, but he is led up an enormous garden path in search of a ‘John Prince’ thought to have threatened Stanworth (I certainly spotted what was happening before it occurred to Sheringham or Grierson, but there was a good deal of pleasurable anticipation generated for the outcome as a result). Sheringham also is the antithesis of Lord Peter Wimsey, for example, in that he doesn’t seem to care about the results of his investigation – the fact that, if he’s right, someone he knows and likes would be handed to the police and hanged for the crime – but more for the satisfaction of his intellectual curiosity.
Berkeley writes description very well, for example, describing the layout of rooms clearly, and the appearance of the house, but apart from Roger, he doesn’t give much of an idea of what the characters look like. The characters themselves are seen rather two-dimensionally at the start of the book, but I think this reflects how Roger sees them; as he learns more about them, and the secrets they are hiding, they become much more real to the reader, too.
I did guess the outcome before it was revealed (not usual, for me), and was rather surprised by Roger’s incredibly blasé acceptance of the killer’s reasons. So the pleasure in this detective novel is for Berkeley’s amusing characterisation and the cleverness of Roger’s deductions, rather than the deception of the prose.