Anthony Berkeley, whose real name was Anthony Berkeley Cox, was a popular British satirical journalist, crime and mystery writer, and literary critic who wrote under the pseudonyms Francis Iles, Anthony Berkeley, and A. Monmouth Platts. Cox’s controversial figure is considered one of the most important and influential crime writers of the Golden Age by authorities such as Haycraft, Symons, and Keating, although his figure today is perhaps not well known.
Born in Watford, Hertfordshire on 5 July 1893, he was the son of Alfred Edward Cox, a doctor who invented a kind of X-ray machine that allowed shrapnel to be detected in wounded patients. Sybil (née Iles), his mother, claimed descent from the 17th-century Earl of Monmouth and a smuggler named Francis Iles. The family inheritance included two estates in Watford: Monmouth House and The Platts. Sybil was a determined intellectual woman who studied at Oxford before women’s colleges were formally admitted to the university. Anthony was the eldest of three children born to Alfred and Sybil Cox. A daughter, Cynthia Cecily, was born in 1897 and a second son, Stephen Henry Johnson, in 1899. In a family of high achievers, Anthony felt overshadowed by his talented siblings: he took a miserable third-class degree, whereas Stephen won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, and Cynthia achieved a doctorate in music, causing him to develop an inferiority complex, exacerbated by a sense that his powerful and intelligent mother found him a disappointment.
Cox was educated at Sherborne School and University College, Oxford. With the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted, attained the rank of lieutenant in the 7th Northumberland Regiment, was gassed in France, and was invalided out of the army. His health was seriously affected for the rest of his life. Details about his professional life in the years immediately after the war are somewhat sketchy. As time went by he devoted himself more and more to writing.
Although it is little known, Cox married twice. The first with Margaret Farrar when he was on leave in London in December 1917. They divorced in 1931 and Margaret Cox remarried. Apparently their breakup was amicable. The second in 1932 with Helen Peters (née MacGregor), ex-wife of his literary agent, A. D. Peters. No children were born from either of the Cox unions, although Helen brought her two children by Peters with her. His second marriage broke up in the late 1940s, and their parting again appears to have been reasonably amicable. Cox’s professional writing career began around 1922, writing satirical stories for Punch and other popular publications.
His first detective novel, The Layton Court Mystery, was published anonymously in 1925; his popularity convinced him to focus his creative energy on this kind of storytelling. Between 1925 and 1939, he published 14 crime novels under the pseudonym Anthony Berkeley, of which 10 featured the amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. In the fifth The Poisoned Chocolates Case, a second amateur detective, Ambrose Chitterwick, is also involved, who will feature in two more of his novels. He also published under his real name, A. B. Cox, Mr Priestley’s Problem and The Wintringham Mystery. The latter was written to be serialized in the Daily Mirror. A revised version appeared as Cicely Disappears in 1927, under the pseudonym of A. Monmouth Platts. Most historians agree that one of Cox’s greatest achievements as a novelist was the first two of the three “inverted novels” he published under the name of Francis Iles. Both Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact are considered masterpieces and had a decisive influence on the realism of post-war crime fiction in Britain. Before the Fact served as the basis for the 1941 film Suspicion directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.
In 1930, Berkeley founded the legendary Detection Club in London together with leading practitioners of the genre, such as Gilbert K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, R. Austin Freeman, Baroness Orczy and Dorothy L. Sayers. In fact, the Crimes Circle in The Poisoned Chocolates Case can rightly be considered a predecessor of the Detection Club in fiction.
After 1939, Cox decided to stop writing fiction for reasons that are still subject to speculation. For the next thirty years his literary output was limited to book reviews for the Sunday Times and the Manchester Guardian. As a reviewer, he was one of the first critics to praise the talents of gifted young writers such as P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. Considered a key figure in the development of crime fiction, Anthony Berkeley Cox died at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, on 9 March 1971. On his death certificate his name was mistakenly recorded as Anthony Beverley Cox.
Anthony Berkeley Cox tends to be mostly remembered for the first two of his “sophisticated,” psychological “Francis Iles” novels, Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932). As for the more numerous crime novels Cox wrote under the name “Anthony Berkeley,” the great standouts traditionally have been The Poisoned Chocolates Case, a stunt story much praised by Julian Symons and others, and the clever criminal and judicial extravaganza Trial and Error (1937), in my opinion Cox’s magnum opus. Little of the rest of Cox’s output gets much notice, though in my view some of it, particularly Top Storey Murder (1931), Jumping Jenny (1933) and Not to be Taken (1938), is excellent. (Curt J. Evans)
Crime Fiction Bibliography:
Roger Sheringham series: The Layton Court Mystery published as by “?” (Herbert Jenkins, 1925; Doubleday, 1929); The Wychford Poisoning Case: An Essay in Criminology published as by the author of The Layton Court Mystery (Collins, 1926; Doubleday, 1930); Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (Collins, 1927; reprinted by Collins as The Vane Mystery; US title: The Mystery at Lovers’ Cave, Simons & Schuster, 1927); The Silk Stocking Murders (Collins, 1928; Doubleday, 1928); The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Collins, 1929; Doubleday, 1929); The Second Shot (Hodder & Stoughton, 1930; Doubleday, 1931); Top Storey Murder (Hodder, 1931; US title: Top Story Murder, Doubleday, 1931); Murder in the Basement (Hodder, 1932; Doubleday, 1932); Jumping Jenny (Hodder, 1933; US title: Dead Mrs. Stratton, Doubleday, 1933); Panic Party (Hodder, 1934; US title: Mr. Pidgeon’s Island, Doubleday, 1934); and The Avenging Chance and Other Mysteries from Roger Sheringham’s Casebook (Crippen & Landru, 2004); 2nd edition with an additional story (Crippen & Landru, 2015).
Other Crime Novels: Cicely Disappears published as by A. Monmouth Platts (John Long, 1927, a shorter version appeared as a serial, The Wintringham Mystery, as by A.B. Cox, in The Daily Mirror); Mr Priestley’s Problem published as by A.B. Cox (Collins, 1927; US title: The Amateur Crime (Doubleday, 1928), The Piccadilly Murder (Collins, 1929; Doubleday, 1930); Trial and Error (Hodder, 1937; Doubleday, 1937); Not to Be Taken (Hodder, 1938; US title: A Puzzle in Poison (Doubleday, 1938); and Death in the House (Hodder, 1939; Doubleday, 1939).
Novels as Francis Iles: Malice Aforethought: The Story of a Commonplace Crime (Gollancz, 1931; Harper, 1931); Before the Fact: A Murder Story for Ladies (Gollancz, 1932; Doubleday, 1932); and As for the Woman: A Love Story (Jarrolds, 1939; Doubleday, 1939)
Collaborative works with members of the Detection Club: The Floating Admiral (Hodder, 1931; Doubleday, 1932); Ask a Policemen (Barker, 1933; Morrow, 1933); Six Against the Yard (Selwyn & Blount, 1936; US title: Six Against Scotland Yard, Doubleday, 1936); and The Scoop and Behind the Screen (both collaborative detective serials written by members of the Detection Club which were broadcast weekly by their authors on the BBC National Programme in 1930 and 1931 with the scripts then being published in The Listener within a week after broadcast. The two serials were first published in book form in the UK by Victor Gollancz Ltd in 1983 and in the US by Harper & Row in 1984)
Further reading: Elusion Aforethought: The Life and Writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox by Malcolm J. Turnbull (Bowling Green State University Press, 1996); The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (Harper Collins, 2015)
A more detailed bibliography of Anthony Berkeley Cox can be found here.