Genial and wealthy Victor Stanworth is hosting a house party at Layton Court. Lady Stanworth, his sister-in-law, acts as his hostess, and his secretary, Major Jefferson, is there to keep things organized. In attendance are Mrs Shannon, her daughter Barbara, Mrs Plant, Alexander Grierson and his friend Roger Sheringham. When Stanworth is found dead in the library, behind locked doors and windows, it looks like a case of suicide. Yet Roger Sheringham is unconvinced and decides to prove that it was murder. With Alec as his Watson, Roger is bound and determined to solve the case.
This was another re-read for me (I have resolved to not buy any books between now and Christmas…yah, let’s see how long that lasts), and I remember reading it several years ago, and liking it, but didn’t remembering much of the plot until I got into it again. This was Anthony Berkeley’s first novel, published (anonymously) in 1925. In the dedication, Berkeley states that his goal was to write a mystery that laid out for the reader “every scrap of evidence just as it is discovered” and he has done so very well. This is definitely a fair play mystery.
He also sought to create a plausible detective, and so introduced the character of Roger Sheringham, a novelist who casts himself as detective in the style of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike Holmes, while Sheringham does uncover a great deal of evidence, his means of interpreting it relies more on his imagination than deductive reasoning. Often fitting the evidence to his latest theory, he goes down a number of wrong alleys, always convinced that he is correct. But while his theories may fall short of the mark, he’s like a dog with a bone, refusing to give up, and somehow he gets to the truth. In Sheringham he has succeeded by crafting a character that is not to be taken too seriously; fallible, yet brimming with conceit regarding his talents as a detective.
‘Not much so far as actual hard-and-fast-evidence goes, I’m afraid,’ he concluded, ‘but we greater detectives are above evidence.’”
Unfortunately, while the story is populated with all of the stock characters of a country house mystery, Berkeley does little to flesh them out, we never learn much about them, and so they remain rather two-dimensional throughout. Also, other that the rather amusing “John Prince” episode, the plot involves little outside of conversations between Sheringham and Grierson, with Sheringham espousing his latest assumptions, followed by Grierson trying to rein his excessive enthusiasm and pointing out the flaws in his theories.
That being said, I still enjoyed Layton Court immensely. Having Sheringham lay out all of the clues, and then seeing him jump to several inevitably wrong conclusions, was highly entertaining. Berkeley’s writing is filled with dry wit, and while the continuous dialogue between Sheringham and Grierson could be tedious, it was always filled with clever, amusing wordplay.
This is one of only two books by Berkeley that I’ve read, the other being Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery, but I will definitely be reading more.
My Judgment – 4/5