Cosy Crime

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Fiona was having a tough time — she concussed herself on a door frame, and she quite her job after it became intolerable — and was looking for something light to read. I recommended some nice English murders.

First up was Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I first heard about through David Bordwell’s site. DB is a mystery fan, which makes sense as he’s fascinated by the art of construction — stories, sequences, compositions. And Berkeley is a master of construction, delivering in this book a mystery which arrives at a fresh solution in every chapter. The whodunnit seems to be an art form which attained decadence at once, with baroque twists coming into play immediately — Agatha Christie pulled off most of the major outrages (the detective did it; the narrator did it; everybody did it), while John Dickson Carr (AKA Carter Dixon) was content to perform infinite, mad variations on the locked room/impossible crime scenario. But Berkeley, a better stylist with a deeper interest in character psychology, combined outrageously twisty narratives with humour and a degree of emotional depth.

Like Christie and Carr, he had two main detectives, the mousey Mr. Chitterwick and the more flamboyant Roger Sheringham. The name Roger Sheringham is so rosy and British it makes me smile just to type it. Both appear as dueling criminologists in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Chitterwick takes centre stage in The Piccadilly Murder, in which he witnesses what only later turns out to be a murder. He’s a funny little character and his adventures are lightly likeable, but Trial and Error is something more — Chitterwick is reduced to a supporting role while the protagonist is Mr. Todhunter, a rumpled bachelor who, upon learning he has a terminal aneurysm, resolves to rid the world of an outstanding human pest as a kind of farewell act — a humanitarian murder (for a crime writer, Berkeley is surprisingly pro-murder). The problem arises not with the crime itself, which goes quite smoothly after some difficulty in selective a worthy target (the year is 1937: Hitler and Mussolini are both considered). But an innocent man is suspected, then arrested, then convicted, and Todhunter finds he has staged his homicide too well — with no proof, he cannot convince anyone of his guilt, and Scotland Yard regard him as a crank. Enter Mr. Chitterwick.

The book is funny, devilishly clever (with only a couple of awkward moments where things have to be carefully arranged to conceal twists, and the trickery doesn’t quite convince), and the mild-mannered assassin is a delightful figure — Berkeley fairly puts him through the ringer.

Sheringham dominates in The Silk Stocking Murders, an early (1928) serial killer yarn which I’ve just begun (this 1941 thriller rips it off actionably), Panic Party, and The Second Shot. Ever ludic, Berkeley strands his cast of suspects in the first book on a desert island and has Sheringham grumpily refuse to do any investigating at all for the entire length of the book, on the grounds that heightening the atmosphere of mutual suspicion would be disastrous. Civilisation breaks down anyway, with distressing scenes reminiscent of both Lord of the Flies and THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL — usually, in these things, decorum is preserved even in the face of any number of lead-pipe-in-the-library assassinations. In the last chapter, rescued from the island, Roger clears up the case in a few sentences, but does nothing about it.

The Second Shot is equally odd — narrated by Cyril Pinkerton, a pathological prig, it builds up an atmosphere of anxiety until its intensely annoying lead character comes to seem pathetic, loveable and vulnerable, enmeshed as he is in a web of circumstantial evidence. Entering at the halfway mark, Sheringham makes things even hotter for him, shamelessly bullying the prissy squirt, clearing his name and even playing cupid in a charmingly unlikely romance. There’s a first-rate cad character also, for fans of cads (and aren’t we all?).

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Berkeley, like Carr, also wrote under pseudonyms, and as Francis Iles he’s the author of Before the Fact, filmed by Hitchcock as SUSPICION, and Malice Aforethought, which also tempted Hitch. Fiona and I fondly remember a 70s BBC adaptation with Hywel Bennett (it’s on YouTube). Truffaut’s book approvingly quotes the opening sentence: “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.” Better yet, it goes on, “Naturally his decision did not arrive ready-made. It evolved gradually, the fruit of much wistful cogitation.” Wistful cogitation is very fine indeed.

Fiona also followed me in reading Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife, which Orson Welles once considered adapting, and became hungry for more Georgia Strangeways adventures. Sadly, Blake (AKA poet laureate and actor-dad Cecil Day Lewis) doesn’t seem to have provided any, using her as red herring in one book and muse to amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways in at best a couple more (The Beast Must Die being the best-known). Minute for Murder is a very good Strangeways yarn, set in the Ministry of Morale, a thinly-veiled version of the Ministry of Information where the author spent the war. Blake has a weakness for coincidence, but once you accept the premise that the MOM is a hotbed of adultery, espionage, blackmail and murder, it’s a psychologically acute, entertaining and even emotional thriller, featuring a British spy who operates in drag and delights in camping it up. It feels like Day Lewis, who we can assume didn’t normally get out much, was reinvigorated by his wartime experience, deskbound thought it was. Sadly, we learn in this one that Georgia Strangeways has been killed in the blitz.
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In The Whisper in the Gloom, Strangeways has a new romantic interest, sculptor Clare Massinger, so I’m not sure why Blake rendered him single. This one hinges on outrageous contrivance, such as a small boy acquiring a clue which seems to be his own name and age: Bert Hale, 12. This grabs the attention, but turns out to mean something quite different, and the coincidence has no alibi — characters in the book regularly dismiss some apparent situations as being unbelievable, which just makes the glaring improbability at the book’s core even more ludicrous. But there’s fun stuff with the kids reminiscent of HUE AND CRY, and a climax borrowed wholesale from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (which the Master was just about to remake). When the Disneyland TV show adapted this, they called it The Kids Who Knew Too Much. True to form, Strangeways does not appear. Was ever a detective so prone to being deleted from his own adventures?

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5 Responses to “Cosy Crime”

  1. Trial and Error sounds like a cross between Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and Parting Shots!

    Sorry for mentioning Parting Shots.

  2. NEVER apologise for mentioning Parting Shots! I have fond memories of seeing it with friends who wore disguises. Always don a disguise to see a Michael Winner film.

    It does have a bit of IOACAS about it — the guilty man caught in a web of unsuspicion.

  3. A terrific post, thank you. That Fontana paperback cover took me back 60 years. (Aging buggah that I am.) My dad loved a good thriller, was particularly fond of Sax Rohmer, the Dr. Nikola stories of Guy Boothby and (oddly enough) the rather pedestrian novels of Dennis Wheatley. I firmly assert that it would be a Very Good Thing if you undertook more bookchat.

  4. Thanks!

    I read one or two Wheatley satanic thrillers before deciding he was awful (but not as bad as the inexplicably successful Edgar Wallace). I read quite a few Sax Rohmers, God knows why. I mind do a piece on the movie Fu Manchus at some point where I can draw upon this knowledge.

    The movie that owes most to Rohmer’s climax-rescue-climax-rescue structure is the Beatles’ Help!

    I own a collection of Boothby but haven’t dipped in.

  5. I’m still devastated at the loss of Georgia Strangeways. The Smiler With The Knife was like The Thirty Nine Steps except with a female lead. She was a brilliant character. He should have spun her off into her own series of books.

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