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