Anthony Berkeley’s Murder in the Basement (1932) Revisited

This month sees the British Library reprinting my second favourite Berkeley novel, Murder in the Basement. I often worry I am alone in my enthusiasm for it, as it is not mentioned much online, and I feel like it has flown under the radar, in comparison to Berkeley’s much more well-known and well-respected mystery, The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), (which is my third favourite, incidentally). Click here to find out which is my favourite.

I reviewed Murder in the Basement, in more detail, three years ago, so in today’s post I thought I would look at some of the reasons I think this is such a great read.

Reason No. 1 – The Story within the Story

I am quite fond of novels which contain the story within the story structure, such as in Shelley Smith’s An Afternoon to Kill (1953) and J. C. Masterman’s The Case of the Four Friends (1956). In both these mysteries, the majority of the text concentrates on this second story. However, in Berkeley’s tale the story within the story occurs within the middle of the novel, where we get to read the first few chapters of a mystery that Berkeley’s amateur sleuth, Roger Sheringham, has written. These chapters are set at a school Roger worked at for a while and includes the people he met there, staff and pupils. This part of the narrative becomes an unusual form of evidence and I felt its inclusion adds to the investigative process. I don’t always think this is the case as in Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders (2020), the novel within the novel does not particularly aid in the solving of the initial murder in the first story, (which you can solve without this second text). So in contrast I think Berkeley’s use of the device is more effective and makes for an engaging narrative. The device is not overused and replaces the need for pages and pages of dull police interviews, which leads on to my next reason…

Reason No. 2 – Berkeley writes a police procedural I can enjoy.

When putting this post together I came across a contemporary review for this title in The Saturday Review, published on the 24th October 1932. It posits that the book has a Freeman Wills Crofts aspect to it, with the police doggedly having to figure out who the victim is, before they can proceed to decide who the killer might be. Martin Edwards in his introduction to the British Library reprint notes that this story could be classed as the first ‘who-was-dun-in’ mystery.

Now regular readers of the blog will know that I am not the world’s biggest fan of Crofts novels, (though I seem to be able to get along better with his short stories). After all I am still recovering from the long passages in The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) in which the author waxes lyrical about some road improvements taking place in the narrative and when Inspector French is tracking down a parking ticket. Consequently, I was a little taken aback when I read the idea that this book I really enjoyed, was Croft-like. So how does Berkeley make this type of mystery more palatable?

Reason No. 3 – An Experiment in Detection

One of Berkeley’s defining traits as a writer, was the fact that he repeatedly experimented with the mystery and detective fiction genre, testing the boundaries, and turning well-known tropes inside out and upside down. Due to his experimental approach, not all of Berkeley’s books are a resounding success, but I would argue that Murder in the Basement definitely is. In this mystery Berkeley makes identifying the victim a core part of the puzzle that needs to be solved, hence the term ‘who-was-dun-in’ which I mentioned earlier. This is a type of mystery which other writers would go on to develop and expand further. Pat McGerr and Bernice Carey sprang to mind, and Martin also mentions examples by Leo Bruce and Anita Boutell. In McGerr’s Pick Your Victim (1946) the protagonist has his army pals take bets on who got murdered at his previous workplace, based on the information he can tell them about the events leading up to the death, whilst Carey adopts a first-person perspective in The Reluctant Murderer (1949), yet still manages to plausibly conceal who the intended victim is. Of the two I think Carey’s is more successful at making such a narrative experiment interesting to read, like Berkeley’s book. One thing they share is…

Reason No. 4 – Effective and Engaging Characterisation

With this type of a mystery, a ‘who-was-dun-in,’ there is a risk of boring the reader or creating a story which loses pace. An uninterrupted flashback style, as adopted by McGerr, suffers from this issue. Conversely, Berkeley keeps most of the story in the present day, with characters having the opportunity to discuss the case as it progresses, and his story within a story, which arguably works like a flashback, is kept shorter.

I was interested to read a comment Jon made on the Gadetection website, concerning Murder in the Basement:

‘A rather oddly-constructed work which combines the elements of a grim police procedural with the investigative adventures of Roger Sheringham. It’s a little like watching the author flip back and forth between Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles.’

Whilst I think I enjoyed the story more than Jon, I agree with him that this mystery in a way fuses the plotting of Berkeley’s Sheringham books with the characterisation, irony and humour of the Iles novels. For me this is a successful combination, and the overall tone of the piece is not as dark as Before the Fact (1932). For instance, the opening of the story has a lighter tone with a young couple dealing with their removal men:

“Think you’ll find everything quite satisfactory now, sir,” said the large men, very deferentially.

Reginald nodded. He did not say that, to his certain knowledge, every single article of furniture, so carefully labelled in advance with the name of the room for which it was destined, had been put in a wrong one, so that he and Molly would have to spend several laborious hours in sorting them out. Young Mr Dane was not one to make unnecessary fuss.

One final comment to make on characters concerns Berkeley’s series sleuth, Roger Sheringham. In his earlier appearances, his irksome manner has put some readers off, so I just wanted to reassure those readers that Roger’s appearance in Murder in the Basement occurs mostly in the final third of the book. Moreover, it is from around this time that Berkeley pulls back some of Roger’s unpleasant traits and I feel his is a more likeable character as a result.

So here are four good reasons to give Murder in the Basement a go, a mystery suitable for novice and seasoned readers of Berkeley’s work alike. If you like this book too it would be lovely to hear what your reasons are for enjoying it.

14 comments

  1. This is my favourite Berkeley so far although I have not read your No1.

    Structure, characterisation, the little twist, and Sheringham firmly under control are the contributing factors.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice to see this Berkley story come back into print. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a physical copy of this available, which could explain why it isn’t widely discussed. It’s interesting how widely known Berkeley is, and yet some of his books are just impossible to find.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting how widely known Berkeley is, and yet some of his books are just impossible to find.

      This is why I keep my fingers crossed for a reprint of Top Storey Murder, but the British Library is going to do Jumping Jenny next. A great pick and consider it to be one of his best, but Top Storey Murder needs to be reprinted to counter the ridiculously overpriced, secondhand copies. So maybe late next year. Until then, Kate has made a compelling case to move Murder in the Basement up the big pile.

      Liked by 1 person

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