Friday, July 5, 2013

Book Review - Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery by Anthony Berkley
Published by: The Langtail Press
Publication Date: 1927
Format: Kindle, 214 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Roger Sheringham is about to go off on holiday with his cousin Anthony when his editor calls. The Daily Courier has gotten wind that the accidental death of a Mrs. Vane in Ludmouth might not be quite so accidental, as Inspector Moresby has been seen poking around after the inquest. Roger bullies Anthony into accompanying him, because a holiday is one thing, a holiday that doubles as a murder mystery is quite another.  Upon arriving in Ludmouth, Roger quickly runs into Inspector Moresby, whom he knows from the Wychford Poisoning Case, and the two discuss the fact that it is obvious that Mrs. Vane had to have been pushed from the cliffs in order to die. This wasn't an accident, and it certainly wasn't suicide.

The prime suspect is the comely cousin of Mrs. Vane, Miss Cross. Anthony soon makes her acquaintance and comes to the conclusion that such a pretty face is a harassed innocent, and Anthony and Roger soon go to great lengths to protect her and find another suspect, because the evidence very strongly points to her. Though the only other suspects would be the late Mrs. Vane's husband, Doctor Vane, or his lovestruck yet efficient secretary... or perhaps the oddly talkative Reverand Meadows, who reminds Roger of a goat. Roger has a new theory every day, and a new article for the Courier every night... but another murder throws all his what-ifs into question and he realizes that maybe he is wrong or maybe a careless word has led to another death... or maybe crime solving should be left to the professionals... no, Roger would never admit that.

Right about now you're looking at the disparate ratings between the first Anthony Berkeley book I read, The Layton Court Mystery, and this one, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery, and probably thinking, oh my, what is going on, has she cracked? Though your surprise is nothing compared to my own. I was girding my loins as I reached for this book just imagining how atrocious it might be... and perhaps it's the fact that my expectations were so low, I mean, lower then the gutter low, that I really enjoyed it. I mean, sure, there was a bit of a rough start when I realized that there were quite a few similarities to the previous book, what with an accidental death/suicide not being as it appears and the murderer escaping justice, yet again, but somehow I had already come to grips with my gripes.

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is actually the third book in Berkeley's series staring that "keen-witted if slightly volatile Roger." For some unknown reason the second book, The Wychford Poisoning Case, which is referenced in this volume, has disappeared into the ether of time... perhaps it was for the best if it was on par with The Layton Court Mystery. So why have I done a 180 on this series? Well, I'm going with my fickleness as a reader as my defense. The problem I had with the first volume was all the flaws of Roger that just needled me till I wanted to slap that man silly... with some sort of cudgel that would result in pain and death. So going into reading another book with Roger I was well aware of his flaws. I now view Roger as that one friend you have, and don't say you don't have one, I know you do; everyone has a friend that says just the wrong thing at the wrong time, never censors what they say, and in most cases is just downright rude. The kind of friend that needs a disclaimer attached. Yet over time, you get used to their offensiveness. Sure, you've tried to curb it, but in the end, you just live with it. So Roger has become my friend whose flaws I know, but I put up with anyway.

As for the innumerable flaws, the belittling of his "idiot friend," his desire to hold important conversations in the middle of nowhere, his ludicrous theories coupled with the fact he is invariably wrong and blind to the obvious; they somehow work in this volume. His "stupid friend" in this instance is his cousin Anthony. And for some reason I feel the bickering and belittling between relatives more natural and tolerable then between friends. Also, instead of an underlying feeling of anger, their repartee has the feel of the long time association between family that let Anthony give as good as he got. Plus, the addition of Inspector Moresby can not be overlooked. Here is someone who Roger views as his "equal" so that he actually treats the Inspector mildly ok. They have a kind of Japp/Poirot relationship where Roger doesn't belittle his cohort... too much. Also, I have a niggling little feeling that Roger might be Moresby's "idiot friend" and that just tickles me to death that Roger doesn't realize it. Therefore it's more cohorts in crime solving, then the Roger Sheringham offends everyone show. And as for his weird desire to hold conversations in out of the way locals? For some reason perching on a rock looking at the cliffs seems more natural, like they're taking in the sights, then obviously going to a bench in a garden to conspire. Also, I love that his theories about the "weaker sex" come back to haunt him.

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery carried on the meta nature of the first book, with actual crime versus fictional crime in a crime novel, but by thankfully dropping the Holmes and Watson bit Berkeley used ad nauseum in The Layton Court Mystery. This meta nature was able to not only exploit the obvious plot twists that you could see coming a mile off, but was then able to give you a twist at the end that you didn't see coming. In fairness to Berkeley, he stayed true to his writerly code, and you could see the ending if you didn't view the case through Roger's eyes, and I found this a little bit brilliant. While the romantic reader in me would have preferred the interpretation of the facts as Roger and I saw them, I can't help but love that Moresby smacks Roger down and points out to the writer that there is the mentality of a police officer and the mentality of the writer. These two mentalities are at odds, and sometimes it's better to not have too much imagination.


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