Anthony Berkeley achieved fame during one of the periods in which mystery writing was ascendant. In the 1920’s, he was frequently linked with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and S. S. Van Dine as one of the four giants in the field. Indeed, John Dickson Carr, himself a giant, called Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) one of the best detective stories ever written. Nevertheless, Berkeley parted company with them, particularly with Christie—even though she did prove to be, if not the most durable, certainly the most enduring of the quartet—as he moved from the mystery as intellectual conundrum toward an exploration of the limits within which the genre could sustain psychology and suspense. One can almost imagine Berkeley wondering: “What if the reader knew from the first paragraph who the murderer was? How would one generate suspense?” Thereon, he pioneered the inverted mystery, told from the criminal’s point of view or, in a further twist, from the perspective of the victim.
Berkeley was more than equal to the challenges that he drew from the genre, and his work has been justly celebrated for its perspicuity. His characters are rich and deeply realized as he pursues the implications of the murderous motive on their psyches. Although his plots are sometimes contrived (plot machinations are not his principal focus), his stories are shot through with elegance, intelligence, and grace.
One last contribution that Berkeley tendered was to the performing arts. One of his Francis Iles novels—Malice Aforethought: The Story of a Commonplace Crime (1931)—was adapted for television in Great Britain in 1979, while another one, Before the Fact (1932), was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into his 1941 classic film Suspicion with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, and Trial and Error (1937) was directed by Vincent Sherman and scripted by Barry Trivers as Flight from Destiny (1941). Hitchcock, at least via his screenwriter, betrayed the novelist’s conception of a fit resolution to the thriller; Hitchcock evidently believed that he knew the marketplace better than did the original artist.