Murder in the Basement, my Forgotten Book for today, is an Anthony Berkeley novel that I first read more than twenty years ago. Back then, to be honest, I was rather disappointed by it. There was less humour than I expected and the whodunit aspect was not as strong or as clever as in some of Berkeley's other books. But I've re-read it and revised my opinion dramatically. It's a much better book than I appreciated the first time around.
The structure is unorthodox. A newly married couple arrive at their new suburban house, only to discover that a body has been buried in the cellar. The corpse belongs to a woman, who has been shot, but Chief Inspector Moresby and his team struggle to identify her. Then they get a lucky break and work out that she formerly worked at a prep school. Enter Roger Sheringham, Berkeley's usual amateur sleuth. He has had a spell teaching at the school (talk about the long arm of coincidence!) and he's actually started writing a novel featuring his former colleagues. But which of the women was the victim?
I'd completely forgotten that this is a book with a "whowasdunin" element as well as a whodunit plot. The "whowasdunin" was most famously associated with Patricia McGerr, author of Pick Your Victim, but Berkeley beat her to it by nearly a decade and a half. It's a device that works well, and more than compensates for the subdued nature of the book that troubled me originally.
As usual, Roger Sheringham delights here in helping to thwart justice (or, perhaps, to do justice in a very unconventional way.) Berkeley was in some ways, it might be said, an amoral writer. But there's a cleverness about this unusual story that I didn't recognise as I should have done when I first read it, probably because I was expecting something different. I'm glad I took the time to give it another try. And it provides a reminder that it may be a mistake to write off a book, or even a writer, too readily. Something I'll bear in mind in relation to a new book I've just read, a rather overblown example of Eurocrime, that didn't live up to my expectations. Maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for it.