Murder in the Basement (1932) by Anthony Berkeley

I’ve not read a Berkeley novel since November, though a break from him was probably a good idea, as I had managed to read 6 by him last year. Not sure I’ll be achieving such numbers this year as the ones I have left to buy are in the main expensive or non-existent online. Though it would be cool to get a copy of Professor on Paws (1926) for the title alone.

So to today’s read: Young and newly married couple Reginald and Molly Dane have just moved into their new home. Reginald decides to investigate the cellar, hoping the old owners may have left something interesting behind, optimistically hoping for a chest of gold. This seems briefly possible, (to him at any rate), when he notices that the cellar floor has been dug up and re-laid. Of course he sets to with the conveniently placed pick axe, yet no reader will be surprised when Reginald comes out of the cellar, pale faced and shaken, heading in the direction of the nearest policeman. This all leads to Chief Inspector Moresby being called in to investigate the murder of a young woman, 5 months pregnant, wearing only her gloves and unfortunately shot through the head. However this case will be far from easy as the body has been buried for 6 months, so much decomposing has occurred and in fact identifying the body will be a big issue for Moresby and his team. After many red herrings and dead ends Moresby finally gets a break when the dead woman is tracked to a posh boys school, where of course it just so happens Roger Sheringham taught at, for a couple of weeks the previous summer – though interestingly Sheringham has a very minor role in the story until the final third of the book. However one of the most fascinating elements of this story is the middle section in which we read the first few chapters of a novel Sheringham had written revolving around the school and its inhabitants – it is only after reading this segment that we are told the name of the victim and it is only then that we can begin to decide who might have committed the murder. Like many schools in mystery fiction, the place is full of barbed comments, clandestine relationships and bitter grudges so there is plenty of material for murder. The killer may initially seem obvious but there is always that worry that maybe Moresby is barking up the wrong tree? Or alternatively the obvious may be correct but impossible to prove – with a fallible sleuth like Sheringham the story can go either way.

Overall Thoughts

If you’ve skipped down to my rating already then you’ll know I really enjoyed this book, which showcases a number of Berkeley’s strengths as a writer. There are delightful moments of social comedy, such as on the opening page with Reginald Dane worrying over how much to tip the removal men, as well as agreeing with said men that every item of furniture has been put in the right room, whilst knowing in fact, despite extensive labelling, that this is far from true. One does need to be polite after all! The prose also holds lovely lines of wonderful understatement, which comes through in his depiction of the battle of the sexes. Now Berkeley, on a bad day, can be somewhat of a misogynist in his portrayal of women and in this story he does show women as man hunters or like anglers keen to reel in their fish. Yet this doesn’t become unpalatable as the way he depicts the male characters fairly balances it out, revealing the men to be just as calculating or psychologically weak enough that they don’t have strong enough resistance or inclination to prevent being pulled into matrimony.

The story within a story element worked really well for me, as I liked being given an opportunity to figure out who the victim will be, as well as have some data upon which to decide who the killer might be as well. It is an unusual form of evidence but I think it was a good choice as it provided for a lively narrative which was also quite succinct and didn’t mean we needed pages and pages of dull interviews.

With Sheringham the justice executed in the book will always be of the slippery kind and although Sheringham has a smaller presence in this book compared to some of his other cases, I think given his over-confidence and self-approval in this book, that minimal role was probably a good idea. His unpleasant personality didn’t get the chance to put this reader off at any rate.

So lots of things working for me in this story: strong narrative style, fun gentle comedy, unusual typography and an intriguing mystery to boot. I am only sorry that this book is not more readily available. There are some copies for sale online but be prepared to pay £35+. But at least it is a book to keep an eye out for, as occasionally his books do appear cheaper, which was the case for my copy of this book. All I can say is good hunting!

My new odd word of the week definitely has to ‘pag-wamp’. Based on the following context I can only assume it is some kind of skin redness due to an allergic reaction: ‘Damn, I’ve got a pag-wamp coming on my cheek. That was the salmon.’ Anyone else come across the word? In books obviously, as I can’t imagine anyone hearing this word in person these days.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): At a school

See also:

The Layton Court Mystery (1925)

Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927)

The Piccadilly Murder (1929)

The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)

The Second Shot (1930)

Jumping Jenny (1933)

A Puzzle in Poison (1938)

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21 comments

  1. Thanks for the review, as I always enjoy reading more about Berkeley – whom I fell in love with after ‘The Poisoned Chocolates Case’. I’m sad to say that everything else I’ve read from him didn’t quite make the same impact as that novel did. I’ve read both ‘Piccadilly Murders’ and ‘Murder in the Basement’, I was slightly surprised to see your high rating of it. Until I began recalling the ‘novel-within-the-novel’ – which I recall to be very enjoyable. I can’t quite recall, though, Sheringham’s evidence for identifying the culprit(s) – so perhaps that was an aspect I enjoyed less.

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    • I can see why TPCC would appeal to you as it is all about the clues/the evidence etc. I think in Berkeley’s other novels there is sometimes a greater focus on criminal, psychology or Sheringham is more interested in using psychological evidence and fudging up the truth to suit his own ends, so I can see why some of Berkeley’s novel would appeal to you less. But the Chitterwick ones are probably more clue orientated and yes I am sucker for novel with novel type things!

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  2. I quite enjoyed this one. I particularly liked the bit where one of the characters complains about Miss Crimp, the Music and Dance teacher at her father’s school: ‘She did not even try to impart what knowledge she had. Laughter and badinage proceeded as a rule from those rooms in which Miss Crimp was supposed to be instructing the young. Laughter and badinage.’ I love that repetition at the end.

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