The Wintringham Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

Searching for Cicely…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Stephen Munro has run through the small inheritance left him by an uncle and finds he needs a job. A demobbed army officer from the upper classes, he has no useful experience, so the only job he can get is as footman to Lady Susan Carey at Wintringham Hall. Lady Susan is hosting a house party, and unfortunately for the new footman several of the guests know him on a social footing, putting him in a rather awkward situation. Especially so when Pauline, the woman he loves, turns up with her new fiancé. However when one of the guests goes missing in mysterious circumstances, Lady Susan turns to Stephen, for whom she has developed a maternal fondness, to act as a kind of private detective on her behalf…

This is a lot of fun, so long as you can overlook the basic silliness of it all. Pauline soon teams up with Stephen in the investigation and there’s more than a whiff of romance in the air, while the other characters range from Wodehouse-type silly asses, to nasty crooks, to pretty girls, to downtrodden companions. No police, which is odd given that the story involves not only theft but murder, but they must have done things differently in Sussex in the 1920s! The story was originally serialised in six parts in a newspaper, and I did wonder at points if Berkeley knew how it was going to end when he started it – it seems to wander around quite a lot in the middle, not quite sure if it’s a comedy or a serious crime story, and some of the characters’ personalities seem to change a bit as the story develops. However, it’s very entertaining, so I was able to forgive the lack of credibility and slightly chaotic plotting.

The British obsession with class is present in full force. The very idea of a young man from a good family taking a job as a footman is apparently hilarious, not only to the other guests but to the reader (most of whom would have been from the working class given that the newspaper in question was The Daily Mirror – proving, if proof were needed, that British elitism is a tradition upheld by those at the bottom as much as those at the top). To be fair to Stephen, he takes the job seriously and does it rather well for the short period before Lady Susan decides to convert him from employee to guest.

The mystery all begins when one of the guests, Freddie, insists on holding a kind of séance, naturally with all the lights turned out. When they are turned back on, it transpires that Cicely, a young protégée of Lady Susan, has disappeared. Some of the guests think supernatural forces are at work, others think Cicely is playing an elaborate hoax and will soon reappear when she tires of hiding, and others think that some kind of nefarious happenings are… er… happening. This last group feel vindicated when Cicely doesn’t reappear, and Lady Susan’s jewels disappear! Stephen and Pauline must try to find Cicely and work out what is going on. And then someone dies…

Anthony Berkeley

Not that that death in any way darkens the general tone of jollity and romance! Each of the characters has some kind of mystery about them or behaves in a suspicious manner, so Stephen and Pauline have great fun guessing at motives and wandering about the house by torchlight in the middle of the night, and so on. Lady Susan takes the loss of her jewels and a death on her property in her stride, showing the true stiff-upper-lip spirit of the aristocracy. Makes you proud to be British!

In the end, the solution is in one sense quite simple and in another so complex that two days after reading it I can’t for the life of me remember what it was all about! Seems to me there are loose ends lying around all over the place, unless they were all neatly tied up but lost in the general confusion. But all’s well that ends well, eh? And I enjoyed it very much while I was reading it, which is the main thing. One not to be taken too seriously, then, but great for when you just want a bit of light entertainment to while away a few hours.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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36 thoughts on “The Wintringham Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

  1. It sounds like great fun – as extreme Britishness can be! Though my class sensitivities were quite triggered with your initial descriptions of snobbiness and the fact that someone’s class “demotion” was considered a source of hilarity. Different times…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I always feel I should be outraged by the snobbery in the Golden Age, and some of them do annoy me, like Lord Peter Wimsey. But mostly it amuses me – and honestly there’s still a lot of it around, though we like to pretend we’ve moved on. Nothing cheers us up as much as seeing all the posh people at a nice Royal wedding, though it’s mainly so we can mock their hats… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. From your review, this one does give me some Wodehousean vibes (why I can’t I remember the name of the girl in Wodehouse who took up a cook’s job, and then eloped with Gussie)–and if it was fun to read, then what matter if there was a little confusion at the end

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sometimes the snobbery in Golden Age books sets my teeth on edge, but other times it doesn’t bother me – I think it depends on how patronising the author is towards the “lower classes”. Happily this one didn’t feel patronising so I could be amused by it!

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  3. Sometimes a fun book is just what the doctor ordered, FictionFan. And you’re right; with a read like that, it’s best not to get too caught up in the whole disbelief thing. Lots of Golden Age elements in this one, too – the romance, the class thing, the character tropes… It does sound like an enjoyable read if you just let it be what it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, so long as a book is entertaining enough then any other problems with it recede into the background. It’s the dull and worthy books that make me start nit-picking! 😉 I loved the main characters in this and their inevitable romance, and although it’s full of class stuff there’s not the kind of patronising snobbery that makes me grind my teeth. A fun one!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sometimes a bit of light-hearted silliness is just what the doctored ordered. 😉 I guess the BL doesn’t have dibs on all the great covers for Vintage Crime since this book has a wonderful cover, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah yes, the Brittish Class System. To be honest, I don’t think this book or author would be alone within the genre for holding such ideas. It does sound a blast though, if a bit mixed up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, no, it would be quite hard to find a Golden Age mystery that wasn’t dripping in class snobbery! Sometimes it bothers me and sometimes not – I think it depends on how they treat the “lower” class characters in the books.

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    • I reckon vintage crime in general is winning the battle of the covers hands down at the moment! I can overlook a lot of silliness in the plotting so long as a book is entertaining me, and this one certainly did that!

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  6. You bring up a good question – when these stories were serialized in papers, did the author have to submit the final story before it was chosen, or did they make it up as they went along? Adding to it each week? I always wondered about that…

    Liked by 1 person

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