(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

“Anthony Berkeley Cox.” In Twelve Englishmen of Mystery, edited by Earl Bargannier. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1984. Discusses Berkeley as a distinctively English writer and analyzes the relationship of British culture to his work.

Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. 1941. Reprint. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1984. Organizes the history of detective fiction into a “biography,” and situates Berkeley’s works in relation to others in the narrative.

Haycraft, Howard, ed. The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays. Rev. ed. New York: Biblio and Tannen, 1976. Includes a critique of Berkeley’s detective fiction.

Johns, Ayresome. The Anthony Berkeley Cox Files. London: Ferret Fantasy, 1993. Bibliography of works by and about the author.

Malmgren, Carl D. Anatomy of Murder: Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2001. Discusses Berkeley alongside such disparate fellow authors as Fyodor Dostoevski, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dorothy L. Sayers. Details his contribution to the genre.

Roth, Marty. Foul and Fair Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. A post-structural analysis of the conventions of mystery and detective fiction. Examines 138 short stories and works from the 1840’s to the 1960’s. Helps place Berkeley among his fellow writers.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel—A History. Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1985. Critical study by Symons, a fellow mystery writer, that includes consideration of Berkeley’s contributions to crime fiction.

Turnbull, Malcolm J. Elusion Aforethought: The Life and Writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996. Combined biography and critical study, situating Berkeley’s works alongside relevant episodes in his life.