Five years ago, I visited Pablo Neruda’s former home in Valparaíso, now a museum. La Sebastiana is perched on a hillside with marvellous views out over the Pacific. When I reached the poet’s study at the top of the house, the audio tour commentary mentioned the ‘thrillers’ that he’d enjoyed, some of which were gathering dust on the lowest shelf of a bookcase. My lifelong fascination with detective stories made it inevitable that I would get down on hands and knees and explore the books to see if Neruda and I shared any tastes.
There were a couple of dozen paperbacks, including – to my delight – dog-eared green Penguins written by a favourite author of mine, Anthony Berkeley. At one time, Berkeley’s name was spoken in the same breath as that of Agatha Christie, and he was her own favourite detective novelist. Jorge Luis Borges also admired him. A gifted innovator, Berkeley wrote some of the cleverest novels in the crime genre as well as some of the most deeply ironic. Yet over the past eighty years he has become almost completely forgotten.
I first came across his name as a schoolboy, when I was already hooked on detective fiction. I was a fan of the BBC anthology series Detective in which an adaptation of Berkeley’s short story ‘The Avenging Chance’ was screened, starring John Carson as the suave detective Roger Sheringham. The twists and turns of the plot appealed to me and so I scoured the local library for more of Berkeley’s books. With one exception, the witty and ingenious Trial and Error (1937), they were all unavailable. So began my quest to hunt down the rest of his novels and discover more about the secretive, elusive man who wrote them.
Berkeley, whose real name was Anthony Berkeley Cox, was educated at Sherborne and Oxford; he fought in the First World War and suffered long-term health problems as a result of being gassed. After the Armistice, he began to contribute skits to Punch bef
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