Panic Party (1934) by Anthony Berkeley

Panic Party, a.k.a. Mr Pidgeon’s Island, is 10th and final novel featuring Berkeley’s series sleuth Roger Sheringham. When reviewing this title on 3rd June 1934, Dorothy L. Sayers sums up the plot as follows:

‘A rich cynic maroons an ill-assorted generation of human vipers on a desert island, informs them (just for fun) that one of them is an undetected murderer, and sits back to enjoy their reactions. The first reaction (very rightly) is the murder of the cynic; after which Roger Sheringham has to grapple with the reactions to that.’

In keeping with Berkeley’s approach to writing crime fiction, this novel sees him experimenting and exploring the possibilities and limitations of the detective novel. The Saturday Review at the time commented that Berkeley ‘is getting less interested in sordid crime, more in character and situation. Result, unusual for intelligent fans.’ Berkeley, in the book’s dedication to Milward Kennedy, writes that

‘You once challenged me, in public print, to write a book in which the only interest should be the detection. I have no hesitation in refusing to do anything so tedious, and instead take the greatest pleasure in dedicating to you a book which is precisely the opposite…’

So with all of these viewpoints, and others, swirling in my head, I embarked on reading this book, wondering what sort of story I was in for…

The book begins with Roger Sheringham and another yacht guest, Crystal Vane getting the train to the departure point. Roger is surprisingly cold in demeanour and in reading this last novel you can see how much he has changed since his first case in The Layton Court Mystery (1925). He is something of a curmudgeon in regards to the other guests who are mostly ‘stage and literary folk,’ and he is not looking forward to being cooped up with self-absorbed poets and writers whose books are ‘tripe.’ Roger is also a very suspicious holidaymaker and in hindsight you can’t really blame him, as it is in these opening pages that Crystal begins to let him in on the subterfuge that she and Mr Pidgeon have cooked up between them. At this early stage Roger sees their plotting as childish and inconveniencing, it is later that he realises how heartless and deadly it will become… I didn’t warm to Crystal in these opening chapters, as her gossip journalism vernacular did not appeal, but over the course of the book I found she improved upon further acquaintance.

So the start of the book unpacks the various yacht guests, as well as drip feeding Mr Pidgeon’s plan for his ridiculous assortment of guests. It is very much a case of wanting to see what happens when they are subjected to a specific kind of stress and strain in a contained space. This put me in mind of Ngaio Marsh’s later book Death and the Dancing Footman (1942), which also uses the trope of a rich man conducting a psychological experiment which ends in death.

Snobbery is lampooned in the likes of fellow guest Mrs Bray:

‘who spoke with such overwhelming gentility out of the round little mouth underneath her parrot nose, that Roger was seized with an insane urge to say lavatory-paper’ to her just once, and then catch the heavens as they fell.’

Mentally, Roger does quite a bit of this when conversing with Mrs Bray on the yacht. Whilst I think Berkeley works a P. G. Wodehouse note into the piece with the two younger guests, Unity Vincent and Harold Parker. Unity is initially shown to be demure and so shy she wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but we find she soon takes Harold ‘under her wing,’ and is a true Wodehouse female character in her determination for Roger to help Harold with his film scenario idea. Sheringham points out his lack of knowledge in this area, but Unity naturally talks over the top of him and Parker, reasserting her original point, regardless of what anyone else says. We also get cracking lines like: ‘That’s enough Harold […] I’ve told you before not to overdo the thanks.’ Suffice to say Unity comes out of her shell… The Wodehouse vibe also pops up later in the book in a comment Mr Pidgeon’s makes to Roger: ‘I don’t agree that the weaker spirits and the women should be classed together […] If you imply that the words are synonymous, I agree still less.’

Berkeley spends a great deal of time setting up the characters and their personalities and I feel this is because part of the interest later in the book is observing how these personas slip and reveal a more different person underneath. One of things I enjoyed was how characters which seemed rather minor in the beginning turned out to be much more interesting than expected. Lady Darracott is one such person, who is a chaperon for her niece. Crystal invited her as she thinks ‘aunts might be capable of anything,’ and I like how Berkeley picks this up in the plot.

Whilst Roger thaws out towards the others, it is interesting how he is now not the obnoxious annoying one. If anything, he is one of the few characters who retains his sense and sanity as the nightmare unfolds and I also found it touching that Roger is more sensitive to the poor behaviour of others and is conscious of helping those who are socially less confident. Roger’s opinion of Mr Pidgeon is intriguing in its ambiguity. His attitude starts off cautious and concerned and he certainly does not buy into Mr Pidgeon’s genial demeanour, as he plays guests off one another in order to further his own ends. A key example of this is in the way he manoeuvres the group into not stopping at Madeira and heading straight onto his own island. Berkeley captures brilliantly the way people’s attempts to be polite can just make everyone frustrated and irritated:

‘Everyone who wanted to go to Madeira insisted that they did not really want to go there at all; everybody who did want to go there assured the company that Madeira was the last place they really wanted to visit; everyone else proclaimed their earnest anxiety to fall in with anyone else’s wishes rather than express a preference of their own. A storm of altruism raged.’

Yet once Mr Pidgeon unveils his experiment to Sheringham, i.e. deliberately marooning the group on an island and telling them there is a murderer in their midst, despite their not being one, Sheringham’s initial repugnance is not long maintained.  He sets out saying, ‘I feel like a nurse maid in charge of two monster children,’ yet once he knows no murderer exists, for whom his greatest concern was for, his curiosity begins to get the better of him, as he is curious to see how the pampered guests take to a camping holiday, wondering which one of them is the killer. At this point Roger has no desire to tell the others Mr Pidgeon was making it all up – but is this a big mistake? When Mr Pidgeon dies that very night, the next morning Sheringham seems able to view him in a more lenient light, with the text going as far as saying that: ‘Of all the dead men and women he had ever seen, none had stirred him as this one did.’ This somewhat surprised me.

It has already been noted by others that Panic Party anticipates William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and Dorothy L. Sayers in her review had a lot to say about the disintegration of civilised behaviour in the book:

‘The fact is that interest is not human but inhumane […] As the veneer of civilisation wears thin, these accomplish a fine crescendo of nastiness, from furtive intrigue, malice and hysteria to delirium tremens, shooting and lynching, until, by the time rescue arrives, very few of these mean souls have a rag of dignity or decency to cover their Bedlam nakedness.’  ‘The book is consistently exciting and consistently clever; but the author’s sneering hatred of his own puppets provides abundant justification for the editor who looked askance at it. Sloppy sentiment is not wanted, on a desert island or anywhere else; but there is a point at which ruthless realism becomes, not merely too unpleasant for popularity, but a little too bad for belief.’

Yet, despite being prepared for all of this, I did wonder when it was all going kick off. On hearing there is a murderer in their midst the group do not fall apart, and they think Mr Pidgeon’s idea that they should treat it as a game of murder as being in poor taste. Equally once Mr Pidgeon bites the dust the group still copes and for the majority of the novel, there are flashes of hysteria and headless chicken behaviour, but Roger and the others are invariably able to squash it. The disintegration of the group’s behaviour occurs in the final 30 or so pages, when Roger is no longer able to control it and this rising and sinking pattern felt quite realistic. Looking back on the book I think Sayers over-emphasises the unpleasant nature of the characters, as I can think of far more objectionable ones from other books.

Naturally comparisons have been made to Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), but I have not come across any to her novel, Cards on the Table (1936). I think it is reasonable to suggest there are some similarities between Mr Pidgeon and Mr Shaitana, with their love of observing peculiar psychological experiences. Yet the puzzle elements begin the two books do hold some differences. In Cards on the Table you know one of the four bridge players must have committed the crime. Whilst the theory that Mr Pidgeon was caught out by his own machinations, is only one possibility. The idea of an accident or a murder for a different reason are equally feasible. Yet perhaps both Poirot and Sheringham face similar difficulties when it comes to investigating their respective deaths. Physical clues are slight and in the case of Panic Party, are slight enough for some to want to consider the death as an accident.

Interestingly, Roger is quite happy to promote that theory, as he thinks it will aid everyone’s mental wellbeing, so when big mouth Mr Bray ruins it all, Roger’s misery is palpable. Mr Bray not only asserts that everyone thinks Mr Pidgeon’s death was murder, but he insists on a proper visible investigation by Roger, naturally conducted ‘in the way in which Mr Bray considered detecting should be done.’ Of course, Roger’s investigation yields pretty much nothing, though you could say some psychological clues arise. Again in contrast to his debut case, Roger is no longer cocksure of his theories.

The investigation element is short lived in the book and the narrative then focuses on the tension which is created between Roger and some of the others trying to downgrade the need for an investigation, (as after all the stress engendered would result in nothing conclusive), with other stranded guests, who for their own private reasons, want to use the growing demand for the killer to be caught, in some quarters, as a way of creating a frenzy regardless of the consequences. It is this maelstrom that Roger finds himself in the middle of, and it goes without saying that telling them the truth about Mr Pidgeon’s plotting does not work as most will not believe him.

A key facet of why this maelstrom is caused in the first place is the unusual turn the narrative takes in turning Enid Fayre, (the wife of Mr Pidgeon’s second cousin, Willie), into something of a siren figure. The name alone makes her seem a somewhat unlikely choice for this role, but perhaps the strain of island life reduces people’s inhibitions and their true natures seep out. Enid, in her need to self-dramatise, is determined that the murderer be found, and her hangers on soon begin to back her up, despite the damage it causes to the group’s psychological wellbeing. Other characters equally begin to show their true colours or appear in a different light. The blushing and shy Parker becomes foolishly heroic, whilst Willie comes more out of himself: ‘Willie was no longer a walking apology for his own existence. The doormat had begun to show its bristles.’ I love this description!

This book is hard to categorise. It does not fit the label of a detective novel, as the detective admits the impossibility of properly investigating the case. A psychological crime novel seems a better fit, but then the narrative shifts from its crime novel focus and becomes more of a survival type adventure, (though we have to bear in mind that Mr Pidgeon told them the yacht would come back for them all in two weeks – so they know they’re not stuck there indefinitely.) The main issue I had with this book is that it is too long, reaching 344 pages in my copy. A shorter book would have pushed the group anarchy to occur sooner and I think the mystery/crime element could have been better sustained. We do get a solution for Mr Pidgeon’s death in the epilogue, but this is something of a deflating experience. It so happens that Roger’s guess proved right.

This is an interesting experiment by Berkeley, and I can see how later writers have used similar elements in their own works, but it is not a wholly successful one. The balance between the different aspects of the plot and characters, as I have outlined, produce an uneven result. But hey at least Roger wasn’t a pain in the bottom! Bet you didn’t expect that!

Rating: 3.75/5

See also: Martin Edwards and Nick Fuller have also reviewed this title.

P.S. I read in Elusion Aforethought: The Life and Writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox (1996) by Malcolm J. Turnbull, that Berkeley gets his own back a little in this story. American critic Alexander Woollcott, who is named in the book, wrote in the New Yorker in 1933, that Berkeley was ‘a writer of pot-boiling thrillers;’ a description Berkeley has said of Roger Sheringham’s own work by the same critic in Panic Party. Yet he does not let this scene pass without another character, Angela St Thomas getting the critic’s name wrong, calling him Alexander Woollybed.

7 comments

  1. Thank you for your review, I enjoyed it a lot. I was disappointed by this book when I first read it (at one sitting, in a rare books library); it’s poor as a detective story–the solution seems not only anticlimactic, but arbitrary and unclued. But I enjoyed it more when I reread it years later. I think Berkeley went too far in avoiding writing a book that was not just detection, and tried to write simultaneously a psychological study of character, a suspense novel, and a humorous novel. Though it’s uneven and, as you say, too long, I found it often engrossing, and sometimes amusing. But I wish there’d been a bit more detection.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. 😞 I was hoping you’d say this is a long-lost classic, which would have promoted me to rush out for a copy. I do enjoy Berkeley, but his middling mysteries are… middling. 😅

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.