Murder in the Basement (Anthony Berkeley)

By Anthony Berkeley

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1932; US, Doubleday, 1932


Blurb (UK)

Berkeley - Murder in the Basement.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

When young Mr. and Mrs. Dane return from their honeymoon they find, buried under the cellar floor of the suburban villa they have taken, the body of an unknown girl.  Scotland Yard is called in, and finds itself confronted first of all by an almost impossible problem in identification.  By an ingenious idea, Chief-Inspector Moresby solves the preliminary puzzle, and calls upon his friend Roger Sheringham, to say that the girl was last heard of at a preparatory school where Roger had been deputising, just before her death, as a master.  Roger had noticed that there were some strange undercurrents among the staff at the school, and on leaving it had begun a book about the members of it.  This manuscript he now hands over to Moresby, and it is given to the reader, who at this stage has not been told the identity of the murdered girl.  The action is thus switched back to a fortnight or so before the girl’s death, with the result that the reader is given a puzzle new to detective fiction: not, spot the criminal, but, spot the future victim.

 

Blurb (US)

Berkeley - Murder in the Basement US.JPG

Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

This is the new Roger Sheringham story

When Mr. Reginald Dane bought his first house he found it quite perfect, except for a depression in the basement floor.  Investigating that depression he found that it concealed the body of a woman, nude except for a pair of gloves.  The body had been there, said the medical examiner, at least six months.  A bullet wound pierced the skull.  There was a bullet mark on the wall of the cellar.  That was all.

The police worked it out quite simply.  “Why does a man want to get rid of a woman – a young woman?  Because she’s become a nuisance to him.  And that means almost invariably that she’s standing in his way with another woman.  She must have been under his influence.  She accompanies him, you see, to someone else’s house, and down they go to the cellar.  I wonder what excuse he gave for that.  They must have gone almost straight there too, because she still has her outdoor things on, hasn’t even taken off her gloves.”

“Unless he put them on her after she was dead, to mislead us in some way,” Inspector Moresby said.  “I’ve wondered about that, because of the absence of rings.  It isn’t natural for a girl to wear no rings at all, is it?  And if he took them off her, he must have had her glove off to do it.  Well, why should he put the glove on again, instead of taking it away with the rest of her things?”

It was Roger Sheringham to whom Inspector Moresby went at that point – and it was Roger Sheringham who laid bare the whole plot that had led so subtly but so inevitably to the murderer the Yard had missed – who confronted a man with his own confession to prove another’s guilt.  The author of Top Story Murder, The Silk Stocking Murders and many other fine and exciting mysteries, has never done a more breathless and thrilling tale than this.


My review

Solidly plotted—and one of the dullest detective stories ever written.  One could accept this account of humdrum police work solving the mystery of an unidentified corpse found in a cellar from Crofts or even from Wade (although Wade would flesh out the characters a lot more), but from the ingenious and witty writer of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, The Piccadilly Murder and Jumping Jenny?  Never!  The only part which shows Berkeley’s talents is Sheringham’s account of a school where he once worked, a narrative which is crucial to the solution.  The book loses impetus after this, as it consists largely of Moresby tracking down the obvious suspect.   The whole piece comes across as uninspired and minimalist, sordid, humourless and dull.  The characters are not given any opportunity to breathe, and only three characters (Wargrave, Harrison and Amy) are on page for any length of time.  Sheringham—an utterly colourless deus ex machina—solves the case using psychology, but his solution is an anti-climax.


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (23rd June 1932):

The greater part of Mr. Anthony Berkeley’s very ingenious and extremely well-written novel is occupied with the problem of identifying the body of a young woman who was murdered and then buried under the floor of a Lewisham villa.  When it is realised that six months had passed before the police made their horrible discovery, and, further, that the murderer, whoever he was, had taken the most elaborate precautions to remove every clue from the scene of the crime, it is obvious that Inspector Moresby was faced with a long and difficult task.  Throughout the preliminary investigations he behaves with the utmost patience and good sense, so that when the time comes for him to call on our old friend Roger Sheringham he has two insignificant clues in his possession.  But still more important is the fact that Sheringham had actually known the girl and worked with her a few weeks before her disappearance.  Moreover, he had kept a kind of diary of the events of those weeks, intending later on to use it as material for a novel.  This remarkable and highly entertaining document is handed over to Moresby, and confirms certain suspicions he had already formed.  The reader may or may not be as painstaking as Moresby, but, at any rate, he is in the fortunate position of knowing the course of events leading up to the crime and of being able to make his own deductions.

 

Boston Transcript (27th August 1932, 180w):

A story told in a lively, pleasant vein.