The Layton Court Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

First appearance by author turned sleuth Roger Sheringham

The paperback edition of The Layton Court Mystery
The paperback edition of The
Layton Court Mystery
The Layton Court Mystery
, published in 1925, was the first detective novel by journalist Anthony Berkeley Cox, who was to become one of the founding members of the elite Detection Club.

His series detective, Roger Sheringham, is one of the guests at a country house party being held at a Jacobean mansion called Layton Court. The character, who is an author, was to feature in another ten detective novels and many short stories by Berkeley.

The party is being hosted by Victor Stanworth, a genial and hospitable man, aged about 60, who has taken Layton Court for the summer to enable him to entertain his friends in style.

At the start of the book, Sheringham has been enjoying Stanworth’s generous hospitality for three days until the party is given the grim news during breakfast that their host appeared to have locked himself in the library and shot himself.

Sheringham is not convinced that his host has committed suicide and sets out to investigate the mystery himself, using his friend, Alec Grierson, who is also in the party, as his ‘Watson’.

Anthony Berkeley was just one of the pen names used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, who died 51 years ago today (9 March 1971). He also wrote novels under the names Francis Iles and A. Monmouth Platts.

Anthony Berkeley Cox helped found the Detection Club in 1930, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. It was to become an elite dining club for British mystery writers, which met in London, under the presidency of G. K. Chesterton. There was an initiation ritual and an oath had to be sworn by new members promising not to rely on Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God in their work.

Berkeley Cox wrote 19 crime novels before returning to journalism
Berkeley Cox wrote 19 crime novels
before returning to journalism
In The Layton Court Mystery, Sheringham does not conceal anything from his friend, Alec Grierson, and therefore the reader has the same information to help them solve the crime as the detective himself.

I found The Layton Court Mystery unexciting and stilted at the beginning, but the writing improved a lot as the book progressed.

I thought Roger Sheringham had the potential to be a good character, although some of the rather fatuous dialogue at the beginning reminded me of Lord Peter Wimsey at the start of Whose Body?  the first novel by Dorothy L Sayers that he appeared in.

Sheringham sometimes tells Grierson what detectives in books would do in particular circumstances, showing that the character, like his creator Berkeley, is a devotee of the genre.

The amateur detective jumps to a few wrong conclusions along the way and follows up each of his theories until he accepts that they are disproved. He tells the other characters that he is asking questions because he has ‘natural curiosity’, to cover up the fact he is interrogating people he doesn’t really know, which was not considered good form at the time.

He sometimes says he is looking for material for his next novel and one of the characters actually says to him: ‘Everything’s “copy” to you, you mean?’

He also finds clues, such as a footprint, a hair, a piece of a broken vase and a trace of face powder, to help him work out what has taken place in the library.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case sold more than a million copies
The Poisoned Chocolates Case
sold more than a million copies
Anthony Berkeley Cox was born in Watford in 1893 and educated at Sherborne School and University College, Oxford. After serving as an officer in the First World War, he began writing for magazines, such as Punch and The Humorist.

He wrote 19 crime novels between 1925 and 1939 before returning to journalism and writing for the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. From 1950 to 1970, the year before he died, he contributed to the Manchester Guardian, later, the Guardian newspaper.

Berkeley’s amateur detective, Sheringham, had his most famous outing in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which was published in 1929. The novel received rapturous reviews and sold more than one million copies. It is now regarded as a classic of the Golden Age of detective fiction. 

At times, The Layton Court Mystery reminded me of Trent’s Last Case by E C Bentley, published in 1913, which was originally intended to be a skit on the detective story genre. Like Trent, Sheringham doesn’t actually solve the case until the real murderer confesses to him right at the end.

However, by the end of The Layton Court Mystery, I had taken to Roger Sheringham and I now look forward to reading the next book in the series.

The Layton Court Mystery was first published in London by Herbert Jenkins in 1925 and in New York by Doubleday, Doran and Company in 1929. It was republished by Spitfire Publications Ltd in 2021. 

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