In The Spotlight: Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Anthony Berkeley (to use one of two names Anthony Berkeley Cox used in his writing) had a profound influence on Golden Age crime fiction. Not only did his own work have an impact on the genre, but also he was the co-founder of London’s Detection Club. If you’d like to read more about Anthony Berkeley and his life and influence, I invite you to check out this article by crime writer Martin Edwards. For now, it’s about time I added a Berkeley novel to this feature so today, let’s look at the third of his Roger Sheringham novels Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (AKA The Mystery at Lover’s Cave).

Sheringham is a writer and correspondent for the Daily Courier. He’s planning a trip to Derbyshire with his cousin Anthony Walton when he gets a call from his contact at the paper. Elise Vane has died after a fall over the cliffs at Ludmouth Bay in Hampshire, and there are now hints that her death was neither an accident nor suicide. If her death was murder it’ll be big news, and The Daily Courier wants Sheringham there to report on what happens. He and Walton travel to Hampshire where they soon get settled in lodgings.

When they arrive they learn the story of the death from their landlord, who gives them several ideas for people Sheringham may want to talk to about the murder. Among others, there are Elise Vane’s husband George, her cousin Margaret Cross, and George Vane’s secretary Miss Williamson. Sheringham and Walton also learn that Inspector Moresby, who’s staying at the same inn, is assigned to investigate this case. Partly in order to write his articles, and partly to satisfy his own instinct for sleuthing, Sheringham begins to investigate the murder.

He soon learns that just about everyone in the victim’s life had a motive for murder. For one thing, Elise Vane was a very unpleasant person in a lot of ways. There are other considerations too. Miss Williamson is in love with her employer; she could easily have cleared the way for herself as the saying goes. Vane himself has a motive too, since their marriage was not a happy one. And Margaret Cross stands to inherit quite a lot of money from her cousin’s will. Sheringham and Moresby, each in a different way, begin to make sense of the clues. Then there’s another death. At first that death looks like suicide but when it too turns out to be murder, the two men are faced with two investigations.

Although Moresby and Sheringham don’t work together, they do exchange information and in the end, they find out who killed Elise Vane and the other victim.

This story has several elements of the Golden Age novel. For instance there’s the theme of young lovers in trouble that we often see in novels of that time. Anthony Walton falls in love with beautiful Margaret Cross, who is suspected of her cousin’s murder. Neither he nor Sheringham want her to be the culprit and Walton’s feelings for his new love interest are an important thread in this novel. There’s also a character who turns out to be using a false identity. Uncovering that person’s real identity is an important part of this story. And then there’s the solution and dénouement. Readers who prefer their mysteries to end with the criminal being led away in handcuffs will be disappointed; the ending’s not so neat as that, and that too happens in a lot of Golden Age novels.

One element that runs through this novel is the very interesting relationship between Moresby and Sheringham. In one way you could say it’s adversarial; after all, it’s Sheringham’s job to find out as much about the case as he can, and it’s Moresby’s job to keep reporters out of the way and to hold back on information so that he can solve the case. But the two do respect each other and solving this case is almost a friendly rivalry. The reader (at least this one) gets caught up in the question of who is going to get to the truth of the matter first.

And that’s partly because of the way Inspector Moresby is portrayed. He is a far cry from the bumbling police inspector. In fact, he’s often far ahead of the game. He’s no superhero – Berkeley portrays him as an everyman – but he notices things and puts things together when people aren’t even aware of what he’s doing. Sheringham himself is no mental slouch. He makes sense of information, he thinks things through and he’s skilled at getting people to talk. The fact that neither of these characters is stupid or unlikeable makes their relationship all the more interesting.

This is an intellectual puzzler in that solving the case is a matter of thinking the case through and making sense of the evidence and of what we learn about the characters. That said though, beware of ‘red herrings.’ Readers who enjoy matching wits with the author will appreciate the way that Berkeley invites the reader to figure out whodunit. There’s an unexpected twist at the very end of the story and in my opinion (so if you’ve read this one and differ with me, don’t be shy about it), Berkeley doesn’t tell us something that he should have mentioned. But even with that, he more or less ‘plays fair’ with the reader. And there is an interesting discussion here of the value of physical evidence and its meaning and of psychological evidence.

Another element in this novel is the striking Hampshire setting. Here for instance is a bit of a description of the cliff where the murder occurred:

 

‘The way down was not nearly so difficult as it looked from above. Everywhere, the face of the cliff was so seamed and fissured that foothold was easy, while halfway down a great piled-up pyramid of boulders provided a kind of giant’s staircase tolerably simple to negotiate.’

 

The seaside setting isn’t the key to the murder but it does provide a beautiful backdrop.

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is an old-fashioned intellectual puzzler with a cast of suitably suspicious characters, a highly effective setting and a fascinating and engaging relationship between the two sleuths involved in the case. But what’s your view? Have you read Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 

Coming Up on In The Spotlight

 

Monday 26 November/Tuesday 27 November – Desert Wives – Betty Webb

Monday 3 December/Tuesday 4 December – March Violets  – Philip Kerr

Monday 10 December/Tuesday 11 December – Maisie Dobbs – Jacqueline Winspear

16 Comments

Filed under Anthony Berkeley, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery

16 responses to “In The Spotlight: Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery

  1. This sounds very interesting. This author is familiar to me (under both his author names) but I don’t remember reading any of them. I will have to find one. Question: Does reading them in order matter, for this series?

    Looking forward to the Philip Kerr and Jacqueline Winspear posts. I read books from those series recently and am interested in other views on the books.

    • Tracy – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. In my opinion, this isn’t one of those series where one really needs to read the books in order if one’s to appreciate them. There’s a reference here and there to earlier cases, but not in a way that excludes the reader who’s new to the books. I hope you’ll like this one if you get the chance to read it.
       
      And I’m looking forward to those posts, myself if I may say so.

  2. Delighted to see you covering Berkeley, Margot, and I think you’ve summed up this novel admirably. At this point he was still finding his feet as a crime writer and I’d rate it as mid-ranking Berkeley, by no means one of his best. But you’ve identified the features that make it interesting and still well worth reading. I like the way he was trying to do something fresh with the detective story.

    • Martin – Thanks for the kind words; that means a lot to me coming from you. I agree with you that this one is not Berkeley at his best. There are places here and there in the novel where you see that he hadn’t yet smoothed out the edges if I can put it that way. But as you say, there are some solid reasons to read it and I do appreciate that he was trying to do something innovative here. I love the Hampshire setting too.

  3. Margot, once again you are goading me towards adding to the TBR pile. I’ve read “The Poisoned Chocolates Case,” some short stories including “The Avenging Chance” and I have “The Silk Stocking Murders” waiting for me on my Kindle, but I haven’t read “The Vane Mystery.” I must admit, based on my limited reading, that I prefer Berkeley writing under this name to his Francis Iles books, but that’s just my own taste.

    • Les – As far as your TBR pile goes, turnabout is fair play, I would say ;-). In my opinion this one’s not quite as polished as The Poisoned Chocolates Case. His work got better with time, as is I think the case with a lot of authors. But it’s still worth a read. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Oh, and I agree with you about his work as Berkeley vs his work as Iles. But I know that not everyone thinks that.

  4. One thing I like about the classic writers is that they not only have such a clear list of characters but each of them is given a motive to make it a true whodunit. Thanks for the review and thanks for visiting my blog.

    • Clarissa – Oh, I love stopping at your blog :-) – And you’re right too about the way classic mysteries explore characters and their motives. In that kind of whodunit it’s really interesting to look at each character and all the evidence and figure out who the culprit is. It’s part of the motivation for turning pages.

  5. Read a lot of Berkley years ago. THE POISONED CHOCOLATE case sticks but I read most of them, I think.

  6. I haven’t read the book, but it seems like a good book to read. It reminds me of putting a puzzle together so that the picture makes sense.

    • Helen – That’s a very good analogy actually. If you add to that the puzzle keeps shifting so that new dimensions are added, it’s a good way to describe the novel. I hope that if you get the chance to read it, you enjoy it.

  7. Thanks for this detailed overview Margot – I do like Berkeley (and Iles) but have only read JUMPING JENNY and the classic POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE from the Sheringham ‘casebook’ – sounds like this is less overtly parodic.

    • Sergio – No doubt about it; The Poisoned Chocolates Case is classic isn’t it? This one is a little less overtly parodic as you suspect, but it’s a bit more strained. Not so that it pulls one out of the story, but one can tell he wasn’t yet entirely at home if that makes sense. Still very much worth a read in my opinion.

  8. Nice piece on the author. My faves with Roger are Jumping Jenny and Top Storey Murder.

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