Anthony Berkeley’s name has cropped up several times in my contributions to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books, sometimes in relation to the work of his alter ego, Francis Iles. My choice today is the book he wrote immediately before Iles launched his distinctive career – The Second Shot, which was published in 1930.
Historians of the genre have often drawn attention to Berkeley’s preface, addressed to his literary agent. This is where he set out his manifesto for the future of crime fiction, emphasising his belief that the story based purely on puzzle was ‘in the hands of the auditors’, and that the future lay in exploring the psychology of his characters.
The thinking was ahead of its time, yet disappointment has often been expressed in the fact that The Second Shot was not truly ground-breaking. Julian Symons, for instance, rather dismissed it. True, it is really a tricksy whodunit, and the psychological forays are relatively shallow. And the setting, in an English country house (there is a map of the scene on the endpapers) is very much in the classic tradition.
Yet it is a clever piece of work, with Roger Sheringham proving even more fallible than ever in his role of interfering amateur sleuth. You can see that Berkeley was groping towards a different kind of story-telling, and in the following year, with Malice Aforethought, as by Iles, he made a real breakthrough. But The Second Shot is still worth a look.
By the way, a couple of years later, Berkeley married his literary agent's ex-wife. A bold step for any author, I would have thought.....