“From the triple gallows three figures swung lazily, one woman and two men.
Only a gentle creaking of their ropes sounded in the quiet night. A horn lantern, perched above the triangle of the crosspieces, swayed in the slight wind, causing the three shadows to leap and prance on the ground in a grotesque dance of death, like some macabre travesty of a slow motion film in silhouette.
“Very nice,” said Roger Sheringham.”
Ronald Stratton, a writer of gruesomely humorous detective stories, is throwing a ‘murderers and victims’ party, with Roger Sheringham as the guest of honour and with the tasteful decorative addition of a gallows on the roof. The rest of the party is made up of a few close friends and family, including the eponymous Mrs Stratton. She behaves in such an unpleasant manner throughout – threatening, vamping, drinking and, worst of all, talking about her soul – that you need be in no doubt, even without the helpful title, of who tonight’s star victim is going to be. It is similarly unsurprising that everyone seems to feel the opposite of regret at her ‘suicide’, concerned only that the theme of their party might get them some awkward press coverage.
But Roger Sheringham is unable to resist playing detective – and then, just a little bit, god. What could go wrong?
This is an excellent book, one of Berkeley’s best Sheringhams, with plenty of humour, twists and the ability to play with genre conventions like a killer whale with a startled seal pup.
Warning! Gigantic spoilers ahead – do not proceed unless you have read the book/ don’t mind knowing most of the plot in advance/ have periodic bouts of amnesia and are willing to take the chance
At an early point in the novel, one of the characters at Ronald Stratton’s party questions why the awful Ena Stratton has been invited, concluding that it was necessary in order to get his brother to come. But it is just as likely that he had simply chosen to slay her, not by hand, but by Narrative Inevitability. As an author of playful, clever detective novels, living inside a playful, clever detective novel, Ronald is bound to be aware on some level that, having invited his sister-in-law to a cordial gathering of people who loathe her and garnished it with a theme of ‘murderers and victims’, it would be a poor figure of a Fate who refused to strike.
And so, in a sense, he becomes the second person complicit in Ena’s death (after Ena herself, who spends her entire time in the book metaphorically painting a bull’s eye on her chest and handing out arrows).
Following up this hint is Dr Chalmers. As ‘Dead Mrs Stratton’ is an inverted novel – albeit one with extra contortions and limbs unexpectedly poking from behind ears – we get to watch as Ena plays out her own self-pitying, self-dramatising game of play-suicide for the doctor’s benefit and to witness the moment at which he whisks the chair from under her with a motive comprised of, roughly, one part: the genuine desire to free his friend from torment, to three parts: ‘Oh, for Pete’s Sake!’.
We get just a small interior window through which to view his feelings about the crime – almost none – and his subsequent actions to allay suspicion – also minimal. After this, though, we do not follow the usual tense cat and mouse game between Chalmers and the police, nor does he have any dramatic struggle with the pangs of conscience: the pleasant and placid Dr Chalmers is quite at peace with himself over a trifle such as murder. Instead, the dramatic tension in the book and the inner wrangling come from following, not the murderer but the detective.
Roger Sheringham is not so much an infallible Great Detective and force for justice, as an incurable nosy parker and meddler with a reasonable amount of intelligence and imagination and a sense of ethics about as rigid as silly putty.
Being aware, no doubt, that any given death within his immediate proximity must be suspicious, he pokes about at the scene of Ena’s suicide and soon satisfies himself that it is murder. In doing so, however, he repairs that omission of the killer’s which alerted him to the crime and so leaves the crime scene, rather smugly, as an accessory, feeling that, as – on a few hours acquaintance – he disliked the woman and liked the rest of the party, his duty lies rather towards the murderer than the murderee. This also provides him with all the fun of detection, without the disagreeable necessity of being responsible for hanging someone he’s had a friendly drink with, which is a rather more serious breach of principle.
Unfortunately for him, one of Sheringham’s more ‘Great Detectively’ habits is that of underestimating the intelligence of those around him. This is something which doesn’t matter in a more conventional book, in which all Watsons, slack-jawed oiks and officers of the law will obligingly dumb themselves down to the required level, but it does matter here, where the rules of detective novels are both thoroughly assimilated and gleefully bent as required. Sheringham therefore manages to implicate himself as the murderer with a friend of his and is forced, by pride and a belated awareness of his precarious position, to try to discover the murderer without delay. He builds up a plausible case against Dr Chalmers, before eliminating him as impossible and settling on either David or Ronald Stratton. And, as the police now seem very suspicious, Roger organises a tense conspiracy of lying – conducted largely through hints and mistaken assumptions – in order to both escape suspicion himself (and the tainting of his reputation with the police, if no worse) and to prevent ‘ a decent person’ from the injustice of being hanged for a crime they actually committed. Meanwhile, the rest of the decent, respectable party contribute happily, if sometimes confusedly, to the noble end of perverting the course of justice.
And when, in the end, justice is meted out, it is in an idiosyncratic fashion.
Ena Stratton is punished for being criminally unlikeable, by the penalty of hanging.
Roger Sheringham is punished for hubris, meddling and insufficient detecting rigour, by spending most of the book tensely at odds with the police and by the blow to his pride in discovering, at the end, that he has been dangerously wrong in most of his assumptions. Again.
Dr Chalmers, for a calm dispatch and for refraining from troubling the world and reader with dull angst or messy remorse, gets to live happily ever after.
The patient reader is rewarded with a pleasing final twist to the tale.
And Ronald’s ex-wife Margot, for her own contribution to the story, is very probably rewarded post-book, with a soothing embrace, a respectable, and more-or-less happy marriage and the warm, snuggly glow of a job well done.