Death in the House (Anthony Berkeley)

  • By Anthony Berkeley
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1939; US: Doubleday, 1939

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Berkeley’s last book; published, like Sayers’s, several decades before his death.  In both cases, there seems no reason why they should have stopped writing, for their last books (this and Busman’s Honeymoon) are excellent examples of the detective story, with well-drawn characters, arresting incidents, intelligent detection and a particularly ingenious murder method.  Although House could easily have degenerated into melodrama, with its sinister Brown Hand bumping off half the members of the House of Commons with curare-dipped thorns, Berkeley maintains order in the House.  I fell neatly into the trap Berkeley laid for those who worked out an ingenious method, and failed to spot the agents of the Brown Hand.

Blurb (UK)

You may think it difficult to commit murder on the floor of the House of Commons twice in one week, when crowded debates are in progress.  You may think it still more difficult to stage this sort of crime—and get away with it.  It all depends on your familiarity with the work of Anthony Berkeley, who has given a House of Commons setting to his new detective novel Death in the House.

As Sylvia Lynd once wrote in the News Chronicle ‘Anthony Berkeley’s ingenuity is superb’.  And it will be an ingenious reader who can answer correctly the three questions on page 241 of Mr. Berkeley’s new detective novel without reading his final chapter.

Blurb (US)

In Death in the House Anthony Berkeley has turned to a unique setting for a mystery story.  The “house” of the title refers to the English House of Parliament.  The story opens with a critical meeting of the cabinet at No. 10 Downing Street after the murder of Lord Wellacombe, Secretary of State for India, who had been killed on the floor of the House while introducing a bill of vital importance to the British Empire.  The cabinet in its secret session is considering the grave situation that confronts the government, because, before Lord Wellacombe’s murder, Franklyn, the Prime Minister, had received a threatening letter informing him that should Wellacombe try to introduce this bill he would be murdered.  Naturally Franklyn assumed it was a crank letter, but Wellacombe’s murder had altered his attitude towards the matter.

The British government was as near panic as it had ever been when it became apparent that its most confidential knowledge seemed to become the property of the enemy of the Indian Bill.  Eventually, in the face of Scotland Yard’s failure to solve the mystery, the Under-Secretary of State for India, Arthur Linton, stepped in and succeeded in ringing down the curtain on one of England’s most dramatic murder stories.

Contemporary reviews

The Observer (William Blunt, 2 April 1939): Mr. Berkeley is not the first to be tempted by the inviting setting of the House of Commons, and it is interesting to compare his House with Mary Agnes Hamilton’s.  Hers was seen by a hard-working Labour member.  His is more like the House according to Belloc, an urbane, dependable public school, leavened by a few disconcerting freaks.  A repressive Bill dealing with India is being moved by the Secretary of State, and in the middle of a sentence he collapses, poisoned, exactly as an anonymous letter had warned the Prime Minister he would.  A further letter threatens to eliminate if necessary the whole Cabinet, if that Bill should be moved again.  Members of the Cabinet are warned not to divulge the name of the dead man’s successor in the task.  Another letter names him and repeats the threat.  Is there a leakage in the Cabinet itself?  He begins this speech and dies.  Curare is the poison, thorns the apparent means.  Scotland Yard, in spite of most elaborate precautions, has been unable to guard him.  The Prime Minister determines to move the Bill in person.  On page 241 of his book Mr. Berkeley tells his reader that he is now in possession of all the clues which enabled the police to make an immediate arrest, and asks three questions.  I got the first one right, naming the villain, had pretty good reasons for thinking the second unfair, and was hopelessly at sea about the third.  In the last chapter Mr. Berkeley satisfactorily answers all three, suitably rewards his engaging hero (who had done rather better than I had), and brings to a close yet another detective story that only the author of Jumping Jenny could have written.  There never was another writer of detective stories who managed to make his red herrings smell so good.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 8 April 1939): MURDER ON THE FRONT BENCH

In his new novel Mr. Anthony Berkeley has evidently set out to show that a detective story dealing with politics need not be dull.  If this is his intention, he succeeds admirably.  The Secretary of State for India rises in the “house” of the title, which is no less a place than the House of Commons, to introduce a Coercion Bill.  When in the middle of his speech he hesitates, gasps and falls dead.  In his back are found thorns smeared with curare, the poison of the South American Indians.  Before the Bill was introduced the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet had received a warning note signed by “The Brown Hand” stating that any Minister who moved the Bill would be removed, and other Cabinet Ministers were discouraged from proceeding with the measure.  Nevertheless two brave spirits are found, but both of them, first the Colonial Secretary and then the President of the Board of Trade, are killed on the floor of the House.  The Prime Minister, not to be intimidated, then takes on the job himself, only to be saved by the ingenuity and astuteness of the Under-Secretary for India, who is rewarded with the hand of his fair daughter.

On page 241 Mr. Berkeley challenges his readers to name the murderer, the agent of death and the facts behind the crimes.  A reader may congratulate himself if he works out all the details correctly, although the clues provided are quite adequate.  The weak points of the novel are to be found not in the plot but in its presentation.  The story was apparently first written as a newspaper serial and it suffers from the circumstances of its origin.  It is a little too episodic and the characters are not properly developed.  There is also a curious tendency for one character suddenly to warn another that some startling event is likely to happen and then only a few lines later for the event to happen.  Thus Mr. Berkeley’s story, while it is a good brain teaser and well above the average standard of detective stories, does not approach the high level which he reached in Trial and Error.

The Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 23 June 1939): [Like Agatha Christie with Murder is Easy] Mr. Berkeley has also temporarily lost his length.  Death in the House is badly overpitched, offering us a murder-method so fanciful that any schoolboy could crack it for six.  This is a pity, because the set-up in general is excellent: the Government is introducing an India Bill; a Hidden Hand writes to tell them they had better lay off; they accept the challenge, but, in spite of elaborate police precautions, two successive Government spokesmen drop dead just as they reach the relevant clauses in their speech.

Sat R of Lit (12th August 1939, 40w): Expertly constructed, with old murder-agent used in new—and faintly ridiculous—fashion.  Baffling no end, also extremely British.  O.K.

Books (Will Cuppy, 13th August 1939, 170w): Mr. Berkeley provides a highly ingenious plot and dazzling deductions.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 13th August 1939, 140w): To those who are thoroughly familiar with British politics the story will no doubt have added interest, especially in view of the element of political satire running through it, but it is open to doubt whether the average American reader will get much out of it, despite Anthony Berkeley’s skill as a narrator.

Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 19th August 1939, 110w): I might have been much more impressed by the curare killing if I hadn’t learned a couple of weeks ago that artificial respiration was an excellent antidote.  Evidently no one in Scotland Yard or in the House had ever heard of it.

New Yorker (19th August 1939, 50w): Pretty exciting and beautifully written.