The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley (1926)

All of England believes Mrs. Bentley poisoned her husband with arsenic. 

     ‘Defense!’ said Barbara with a slight sniff. ‘What a hope! If ever a person was obviously guilty–!’

 ‘There,’ said Roger, ‘speaks the voice of all England—with two exceptions.’

 ‘Exceptions? I shouldn’t have thought there was a single exception. Who?’

 ‘Well–Mrs. Bentley for one.’”

That other exception is Roger Sheringham. He thinks she may be innocent, and in order to prove it, sets himself up as an “honorary detective for the defense”. So, off to Wychford he goes, with friend Alec Grierson in tow, and nary an idea of just how to go about it.

In reading various other reviews of this book, I’ve found quite a bit of antipathy towards it. The reason, the treatment of women. The first example usually set forth is when Grierson (not Sheringham) expresses his frustration toward his 18-year-old cousin Sheila’s attitude (she being a modern flapper type) by threatening to spank her, then carrying through on the threat. She actually gets spanked more than once, and Sheringham is responsible for one of these instances. It is an odd and uncomfortable aspect of the book to say the least.

The second example is a discourse by Sheringham in which he holds forth to Grierson on the subject of women. 

’Nearly all women…are idiots—mentally a trifle deficient, if you like; charming idiots, delightful idiots, adorable idiots, if you like, but always idiots, and mostly damnable idiots at that. Frequently devilish idiots as well; most women are potential devils as well, you know. They live entirely by their emotions, both in thought and deed, they are fundamentally incapable of reason and their one idea in life is to appear attractive to men. That’s about all there is to women.’”

Yet most reviewers fail to include the following passage where, upon being asked by Grierson if this is truly what he believes, Sheringham states –

‘Candidly, Alexander, no! It’s the kind of cheap and easy cynical drivel that a forth-rate writer stuffs his books with…Nobody knows better than I that a man without his woman is half an entity and that a woman (the right woman for him, needless to say) can not only make her man twice the fellow he was before, but she can turn his life, however drab, into something really rather staggeringly wonderful—too wonderful sometimes for a determined bachelor like me to contemplate with equanimity.’”

So, not the misogynistic rant against women that I was expecting.

Now that we’ve gotten the elephant out of the room, let’s talk about the book.

We have Mrs Bentley, awaiting trial for the poisoning of her husband. The evidence against her seems overwhelming. She had access to arsenic, and arsenic is found in her husband’s medicine, his food and drink, therefore, she did it. Even her defense counsel believes her guilty. But not Sheringham, who is convinced that there is just too much evidence, although he continues to list her among the suspects throughout the “investigation”. Yes, those are air quotes, because Sheringham’s idea of investigating is questionable to say the least. In short, he insinuates himself with the family, friends, and servants of the accused and victim, then asks questions in an off-handed way, hoping for a result. Also, Berkeley never has Sheringham meet the suspect, or have any access to police sources. Actually, Sheringham shows no interest in the physical evidence of the case. That is until the time comes when none of his theories regarding psychological motivations are shown to hold water. 

Berkeley has done a better job at fleshing out his characters than previously. Of course Sheringham is, as usual, vain, overbearing, smug, and devious. Yet one cannot take him too seriously. I don’t see the character as a conceited bore, but as really rather humorous. I believe this may be because I take him as the consistently fallible detective Berkeley intended him to be. Sheringham is aided again by his friend Alec Grierson, who featured in the introduction to the series The Layton Court Mystery. And much like in that previous book, Grierson’s role is that of a Watson, and a sounding board for Sheringham. But, he also has no respect for the conceits of his friend, and is more than willing to tell him so. Berkeley also gives us a second Watson, Grierson’s teenage cousin Sheila Purefoy. It is Sheila who plays the foil to Sheringham, giving that character the opportunity to spout his witticisms regarding the modern woman.

There is a lot of witty conversation between the three in which each is allowed to provide their opinions regarding the case. Interestingly, Sheringham was quite self-deprecating when proven wrong, or shone up by one of his fellow detectives. There were also several well done (albeit long) passages where Sheringham provides his insight into the law, the courts, and how both are blind to the influence of human nature with regard to guilt and innocence. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. The plot itself does twist and turn quite a bit, mostly due to the usual Sheringham habit of theorizing, casting a theory aside, and creating a new one. It was rather fun, and there was quite a bit of witty banter. But, disappointingly, much of the detecting in the latter portion is merely reported after the fact. This left the resolution, while unexpected and not something I think I would ever have deduced, something of an anticlimax. 

So, a mixed bag of sorts. Definitely not a great book, but not bad and fairly entertaining. 

My Judgment – 3.5/5

Prior Rulings – The Grandest Game in the World, Martin @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name

12 thoughts on “The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley (1926)

  1. This has been a very helpful review. I was most interested by your inclusion of the third quote which casts Sheringham’s views on women in a different light. Pity the mystery aspect is not as good as it could have been.

    1. Thanks! I didn’t find this to be anymore, or less, misogynistic or sexist than a number if other books I’ve read from the era. Also, if I were to not read it for that reason, then I shouldn’t read many others for their racist comments. I don’t agree with, or condone it, but I choose to read them, taking into account the times in which they were written.

      As for the mystery, it would have been better if it had been fully played out. But it is a surprising resolution.

  2. So, not the misogynistic rant against women that I was expecting.

    No, I’ve never understood the reputation you discuss above, especially when it’s so clearly addressed as you say.

    I had a copy of this yeeeears ago, and upon not being able to find it recently bought the Detective Club reissue you show above — I’m quite looking forward to rereading it, to be honest. The more classic-era detection I read, the more I feel this is a very embryonic stab at the genre, and so — as you say — we get pulled into all manner of side concerns about law, people, and other matters. It’s like Berkeley knows there’s a detective plot in here, but he doesn’t yet know that he’s allowed to just write it.

    1. I thought about titling the post “The Wychford Poisoning Case – in defense of Anthony Berkeley”, but then decided that I didn’t want it to be a treatise on sexism in GAD. Plus there were just so many comments (with any empirical evidence) in reviews that would need to be addressed, that I felt it was beyond my capabilities. Plus, unless there is a cache of Berkeley’s papers or letters, who can really know his motivations for what and how he wrote.

      I think I enjoyed the book more than my review or my rating implies, because it was really quite good. Sheringham is a wonderful character, and his commentaries, while often verbose, is always entertaining. But you’re right, Berkeley’s idea of an investigation (at least at this point in his writing) does well for about 2/3’s of the book, then he runs out of steam and presents a solution to us all tied up with a bow. I would have loved to see Roger in that final leg doing what he does best…posing a question and hoping for the answer of his choosing 🥴.

      1. A detective who’s (nearly) always wrong is a wonderful subversion of the Holmes archetype…it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done in modern crime fiction and heralded as a genius reinvention of an old, past it genre. For all the “challenging of conventions” we’ve been forced to witness — drunk detectives, violent detectives, neglectful detectives, obsessed detectives — the idea of someone being actively bad at this profession is weirdly taboo, eh?

      2. “For all the “challenging of conventions” we’ve been forced to witness — drunk detectives, violent detectives, neglectful detectives, obsessed detectives…” I would love to see an author create a detective who is fallible for reasons other than because of some weakness in their personality, and that often takes precedent over the mystery. Would the modern audience be drawn to that though? I tend to think they would not.

      3. Well, we’ve had physically compromised detectives in the form of Lincoln Rhyme (paralysed from the neck down), Sid Halley (missing a hand), Terry McCaleb (recovering from heart surgery), etc, and all had their merits — so I guess it can be done. Jeffery Deaver’s use of Rhyme was fascinating for how much it allowed plot-wise…until his plots started getting too labyrinthine even for me.

        And I guess Adrian Monk from Monk is another form of this, and the plot there appears to be paramount in my early viewing — and, crucially, all of these were successful in their time. Maybe the drunk/violent/corrupt good guy will have his day in the sun again sooner than we think. Hell, there are probably seven of them on the op Ten Crime Thriller Novels of 1029 lists doing the rounds as it is (Harry Hole for one, right?)…

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