If there’s anything to speak to Anthony Berkeley being one of the better mystery writers of the Golden Age, it’s that he was able to produce The Piccadilly Murder: an absolutely delightful read from cover to cover, even though by its very premise it lacks a mystery. For you see, the story opens with amateur detective Ambrose Chitterwick lunching at the Piccadilly Palace, and before his eyes watching a man pour poison into a distracted woman’s cup of coffee. The woman passes away minutes later, and Chitterwick quickly points out the culprit to the police.
That the namesake “Piccadilly Murder” unfolds in such cut and dry fashion – and yet is the murder that the novel revolves around – should be a mortal blow to the book, as you have to wonder what the subsequent 200+ pages could possibly be about. And yet you’re not going to put the book down, because Berkeley is in the groove. Much of his success takes the form of Ambrose Chitterwick, a delightfully self centered character who casts an eye of snarky judgment on everyone he comes into contact with, and yet is somewhat just as much of a fool as the recipients of his observations.
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I’ve been meaning to get around to this book for years. Malice Aforethought is probably the most consistent title to come up whenever inverted mysteries are discussed, and I had a feeling that I should get to it before I read too many books in that vein. In part, I had gotten the impression that there may be some unique twist to this book that was later copied by others, although having now read this, I don’t think there’s really anything that spoilable.
Anthony Berkeley (here writing as Francis Iles) has been really enjoyable for me so far. His characters have this delightful smug selfishness, and his wry observations through them tell as much about the thinker as they do about whoever the snarky thoughts are directed at. It makes the stories a humorous read without ever veering in the direction of comedy. Yeah, some of his characters are inevitably asses, but that’s the fun part.
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Having failed over the course of two years to acquire a copy of Jumping Jenny, I resorted to snagging an affordably priced copy under the alternate title, Dead Mrs Stratton. Either title is suitable. “Jumping Jenny” is the female equivalent of a Jumping Jack, and given the critical role of gallows in the story, serves as a fitting name. “Dead Mrs Stratton” works as well, because, err… there’s a Mrs Stratton who dies.
Mrs Stratton isn’t a particularly likable person, which we quickly learn as the novel opens at a murder-themed party. She hurls accusations and threats at several guests, and takes great pains to constantly be the center of attention. Frustrated that the other revelers have tired of her antics, Mrs Stratton declares that she might commit suicide, and storms off into the night. An hour later, her body is found swinging from the roof top gallows set up as a prop for the party. You can probably guess that she didn’t die at her own hands.
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My only experience with Anthony Berkeley so far has been The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Famous as it is for its multiple solutions, I was just as struck by Berkeley’s acerbic wit. Each character was so deliciously smug in their observations of others, and yet so completely blind to their own foibles.
Trial and Error may not feature as tight of a mystery as The Poisoned Chocolates Case, but it more than makes up for it with a steady feed of wry observations. Anthony Berkeley, through his characters, is so delectably smarmy that I can only imagine that he was the blueprint for Christianna Brand’s work that was to come in the following decades. No other mystery writer seems to come close when it comes to communicating an entire story solely via sardonic observations.
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From time to time I’ll mention my To Be Read pile – a stack of books that I plan to read next. It’s positioned on the desk that I work at so I can gaze longingly at it throughout the day and imagine the mysteries awaiting within all of those titles. Ok, ok, it’s actually five TBR piles – two devoted to John Dickson Carr (it would be way too tall if it was one stack), two devoted to Agatha Christie (and only a fraction of her library), and one stack of books by assorted authors (Christiana Brand, Michael Gilbert, Edmund Crispin, etc, etc, etc) that I’ve decided on a whim I’ll be reading some time soon.
What I haven’t mentioned are my To Be Read shelves. Oh, I know you have them too. If we piled up all of the books that we have yet to read we’d look like straight up hoarders and…er…we’re not hoarders, right? We’re aficionados! My TBR shelves are well packed because there are too many authors that blogs like Beneath the Stains of Time, The Invisible Event, Noah’s Archive, or Cross Examining Crime have convinced me that I need to buy. Plus, I have an insane number of Ellery Queen books that I’m not exactly going to get through this decade…
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