Murder in the Basement by Anthony Berkeley – A 1932 crime classic with a school element republished in the British Library Crime Classic Classics series

Murder in the Basement by Anthony Berkeley

This 1932 novel is another Anthony Berkeley gem in which he experiments with form to produce a more than satisfying classic in the detective genre. It has republished in the British Library Crime Classics series and is well worth seeking out as an example of a mystery victim novel, a change in format in the second main part, and the eventual working out of the story. As Martin Edwards points out in his informative Introduction to the novel, Berkeley firmly believed in basing his characters on real people, and he inserts this theory into the words of his regular amateur detective, Roger Sheringham. Instead of actively helping the police in the form of Chief Inspector Moresby, he hands the manuscript of a novel over, and invites him to read it in order to possibly further the official investigation into a potential victim, and even murderer. Thus, a novel within in a novel may provide Moresby with the vital clues he needs to solve this unusual mystery. Altogether I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intriguing and darkly humourous novel.

The beginning of the novel is a fairly standard set up in that the new occupants of a rented house, a young married couple, discover a disturbance in the floor of the basement. The inquisitive husband decides to dig a little deeper, and to his horror discovers human remains. The subsequent police search turns up the body of a young woman, obviously a murder victim, but completely unidentifiable. She cannot be linked to any past resident of the house, and the neighbours know nothing of a young woman visitor. While some people advise Moresby that the case is hopeless, he doggedly continues his investigation until a tenuous link to Roger Sheringham emerges. Sheringham has been teaching at a school many miles from the crime scene, and has been using the opportunity to draft a novel based on the unseen machinations of the staff. It is this narrative which forms the basis of the second section of the novel, and those who enjoy school or small community based novels will find this part  fascinating. While the implications of Sheringham’s text may suggest a number of potential leads to Moresby, the perennial problem of discovering sufficient evidence arises.

This is a novel which I really enjoyed reading, with enough twists and turns to keep my interest. Not that this is a novel of tricks; the quality of the writing even when seemingly unrelated to the murder mystery is so high that the school narrative would have been an interesting read on its own. The drawing of characters is so assured that wherever Berkeley drew his inspiration from, they are solid and convincing. They are three dimensional in so many ways, and the politics of staff room and study is very satisfying. While Sheringham on one level seems to take little active part in the investigation, his somewhat relaxed attitude is suitably frustrating to Moresby. The first part of the novel with its careful depiction of forensics in the 1930s is also fascinating, especially when compared to the high tech police dramas of today. Overall, I really enjoyed this classic novel which has been made available once more, and I am sure it will please fans of Berkeley as well as make new admirers of his well-written novels.