Friday, 12 July 2013

Forgotten Book - Murder in the Basement

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.

7 comments:

John said...

Being in the right frame of mind has an awful lot to do with enjoying a book I have found. I have picked up books that I started years ago and abandoned and in my second reading pushed on and held on to discover that the book had a lot to offer past the first two chapters.

I need to read more Berkeley, I have all but two of his books and I've read only three. Luckily this is one that I own. Thanks for the reassessment and the insights about re-reading.

Martin Edwards said...

Cheers, John. As you'll have gathered, I find Berkeley's work quite fascinating, even the books that are rather flawed.

Pietro De Palma said...

I didn't know this your post. Stefano, a friend of mine quoted it among the post to a my article, in these days published in Italy.
Very interesting, because I not knowing it,I read a long article about the coimparison bewtween "Pick your victim" by McGerr and "Murder at the Basemen"t by Berkeley. My analysis is more complex because I examine the two novels in their plot, and I give my favour to Berkeley. The reason is in Berkeley idea that is copied almost entirely from McGerr: there is the challenge, there is the resolver that is unconnected with the facts, etc .. For more Berkeley, linking his idea to a particular moment of the novel (and not instead the entire novel as with McGerr) and not tying it to the final solution, anticipates another novel of McGerr where the survey is directed not only to discover the victim but also the murderess: The Seven Deadly Sisters.
My article is published on Blog Mondadori in Italy:
http://blog.librimondadori.it/blogs/ilgiallomondadori/2014/11/12/patricia-mcgerr-vs-anthony-berkeley-storia-di-un-modello-non-riconosciuto/
If I had read your post time ago, I would quote your name like I made other times, when I have spoken about Berkeley.
In a few days I will translate almost all the Mondadori article on my english blog "Death Can Read".
Best.
Pietro

Pietro De Palma said...


If you want to contribute to the debate about the article (Mauro Boncompagni told me that he will write a post, also), maybe reading it helping with a digital translator if you do not know Italian, your participation would be greatly appreciated.
Best
Pietro

Martin Edwards said...

Pietro, great to hear from you. I have read your article via Google Translate as you suggest, and it's really interesting. I'd be happy to contibute to this debate. The 'whowasdunin' does feature in my forthcoming book The Golden Age of Murder

Pietro De Palma said...

I did not know you were writing an essay about the literature of the Golden Age. You're a great writer as well as a fine critic. When it will published, will warn me ? I would like to take it. What does concern besides Berkeley?
Even Innes and Connington?
Best
Pietro
P.S.
Eight months ago was published another long my article about Berkeley: a comparison between The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926)and Not to Be Taken (1937).
If you were interested, the link is:
http://blog.librimondadori.it/blogs/ilgiallomondadori/2014/03/24/2-romanzi-a-confronto-di-anthony-berkeley-the-wychford-poisoning-case-vs-not-to-be-taken/

Martin Edwards said...

Very interested, thanks, Pietro! There will be a great deal about Berkeley in THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER, which is published by Harper Collins next May.