The Layton Court Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

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

Prior Rulings – The Grandest Game in the Worldcrossexaminingcrime

3 thoughts on “The Layton Court Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

  1. Not Berkeley’s best, but also not his worst either. Think I had a similar-ish rating. I’m planning on doing some Berkeley re-reading myself, in preparation for a post ranking the Berkeley novels I’ve read.
    Very impressed by your plan to not buy any new books until Christmas, though I’m sure your TBR pile may be grateful for it lol

    1. Can’t wait to see the post on Berkeley. I do have The Poisoned Chocolates Case and The Wychford Poisoning Case in my TBR. I wish I had more of his books, but they are not easy to come by. Hopefully my TBR pile will shrink…only to grow at Christmas! Right now I’m getting acquainted with Leonidas Whitherall…I picked up a copy of Beginning With a Bash after your review of Cold Steal in September. Let you know soon how it goes.

      1. TPC is a strong one by Berkeley, but I’ve been warned off TWPC, due to its comments on women. However, it would be interesting to get your thoughts on the book. Really hope you enjoy your first experience with Leondias Witherall.

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