Panic Party (Anthony Berkeley)

  • By Anthony Berkeley
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1934; US: Doubleday, 1934, as Mr. Pidgeon’s Island

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sayers thought it one of the nastiest books she’d ever read.  Berkeley wrote grimmer books – Murder in the Basement and Before the Fact are pretty sour.  But it’s easy to see why Sayers loathed it.  It shows people trapped on an island reverting under stress to savagery — which modern readers know from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The puckish Mr. Pidgeon strands fourteen guests on an island he has bought, tells them one of them is a murderer, and watches the reaction.  Although he intended it as a joke, he is pushed off a cliff—and it becomes clear that Mr. Pidgeon’s joke may have been no laughing matter.  Sheringham takes charge in an effort to maintain civilisation and prevent an emotional volcano from erupting, and has a very difficult job of it.

Madness and violence break out all over the place.  In Berkeley’s view, society equals restraint, a mask concealing the individual’s true character and feelings; with society gone, the mask vanishes, and the raw person is left.  This is tremendous stuff.

The solution is of inferior quality: Sheringham fails to explain how he reached the solution, and the murderer’s identity is an anti-climax.  Of course, the only way of avoiding anti-climax would have been to make Sheringham the murderer—and that would never do.

Blurb (US)

Not the least of Roger Sheringham’s cases* is the curious affair of Mr. Pidgeon, who thought he was playing an instructive sort of practical joke, and who found instead that he had unloosed forces of violence he never dreamed existed.  For Mr. Pidgeon, temporarily marooned on a small desert island, which, with a yacht, he had bought to celebrate his translation from Oxford don to wealthy leisure, decided to make the yachting accident look intentional.  He gathered his guests, including Sheringham, about him, confessed that one among them was an unsuspected murderer, proposed to let them find out which one.  Sheringham knew the truth, that Mr. Pidgeon merely wanted to amuse his guests; to study, in his pedagogical way, the reaction of the hunters, not the hunted.  But there was one miscalculation in Mr. Pidgeon’s plans—among his guests there really was a murderer, and on that first night the murderer struck…  Panic set in then, and faced Roger with the double task of finding the killer before he could strike again, of preventing the party from going mad with terror.  A hard assignment—but it makes a brilliant, fer-lit story, with creeps and shudders on every page, and with feats of deduction that only a detective like Sheringham—and an author like Berkeley—could devise.

* Others are described in Dead Mrs. Stratton, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, The Silk Stocking Murders, etc.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 3 June 1934): Too Bad to Be True

Mr. Anthony Berkeley, in a slightly aggressive epistle dedicatory, claims that in Panic Party, the only interest is not the detection but “precisely the opposite”, whatever the opposite of detection may be.  He adds that, in spite of this, the story was once refused by a “leading popular magazine” as “lacking sufficient human interest”, and he seems to think that this was a hard judgement.

The fact is that the interest is not human but inhumane.  The framework of the story is, unlike that of [Mr. Kirk’s] Whispering Tongues, highly artificial.  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 Mr. Roger Sheringham has to grapple with the reactions to that.  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 left 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 desert islands 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.

Times Literary Supplement (21 June 1934): Take ten people, all Londoners or would-be Londoners and mostly literary or journalistic, maroon them for a fortnight on a small but agreeable island south of the Azores, with plenty of supplies and nothing much to do except suspect each other of murder, and see how soon and how far their civilisation will crack.  With such a problem, it need hardly be said that Mr. Berkeley has to strain probability to put his people into position; but, once they are in position, he draws out a brilliant stream of interesting results.  His assortment of uncongenials behave so naturally that the imaginative reader almost hears them reproach their author for putting them in such a fix.  The fix was wholly due to Mr. Pidgeon’s Mephistophelean idea of humour.  He was a sardonic Oxford don.  Suddenly enriched, he bought a 1,250 ton yacht and a tropical islet, invited six men and eight women, planned to maroon them (with all possible bodily luxuries), and then told them that one of them was a murderer.  This was a myth, but next day Pidgeon’s own corpse seemed to show that the cap had fitted somebody.  The rest of the story shows how the fourteen reacted.

New York Times (Isaac Anderson, 15 July 1934): This is the story of a practical joke that goes sour.  Mr. Pidgeon, an Oxford don who has unexpectedly inherited a pot of money, buys a yacht and an uninhabited island and invites a curiously assorted group of men and women for a cruise.  After contriving to have his guests and himself marooned on the island, he informs them that one of their number is a murderer.  That night Mr. Pidgeon is killed by a fall from a cliff, and there is evidence indicating that his fall was not accidental.

Roger Sheringham, who is one of the party, knows that Pidgeon’s statement about his knowledge of the presence of a murderer was not true, and that it was made for the purpose of studying the reactions of a mixed group toward each other under the stress of mutual suspicion.  Now that Pidgeon has been killed, the natural conclusion is that his statement was, although he did not know it, true, and that the murderer has killed again in order to keep his first crime from being discovered.  The situation is all the more complicated because few of Mr. Pidgeon’s guests are known to each other, and because they are of such widely differing temperaments that they will naturally be suspicious of each other.  Indeed, the chief interest of the story lies in the manner in which the various persons of the story comport themselves in the trying situation in which they have been placed.  Although Roger Sheringham is a detective who has appeared in several of Mr. Berkeley’s novel, his efforts in this story are directed more toward preventing more trouble than toward finding the murderer.  Mr. Berkeley has evidently tried to get away from the conventional patterns of detective fiction, and he has succeeded not only in that but in producing an uncommonly good story.

Books (29th July 1934, 450w): Mr. Pidgeon’s Island is up to par, if not more so.  It’s one of Mr. Berkeley’s major opera.

Boston Transcript (1st August 1934, 300w): Fantastic yet plausible story.


A theory that the mystery story is entering a new phase in which it will hold its reader “less by mathematical than by psychological ties,” comes from Anthony Berkeley, whose new novel, Mr. Pidgeon’s Island, will be published by the Crime Club later this month.  “The puzzle element will no doubt remain,” he writes, “but it will become a puzzle of character rather than a puzzle of time, place, motive and opportunity.”  He says that “there is a complication of emotion, drama, psychology and adventure behind the most ordinary murder in real life, the possibilities of which for fictional purposes the conventional story misses entirely.”