One of my very favourite detective fiction tropes is the Unidentified Corpse. It’s at the heart of my favourite E.C.R. Lorac book, one of my favourite Freeman Wills Crofts books, and as a mainstay of the work of R. Austin Freeman is put to wonderful use both traditional and inverted. Murder in the Basement (1932) by Anthony Berkeley also invents the Whowasdunin?, giving us a cast of characters from which the corpse will be produced, and not divulging the identity of the victim until the halfway point. Thankfully, given Berkeley’s tendency to commit to a thought experiment regardless of whether the book that comes out of it is any good, he’s also written an entertaining and very witty novel along the way.
At first, it would appear that Berkeley is writing something more in line with the work of his fellow Detection Club member Freeman Wills Crofts: a newly-married couple discovering buried in the basement of their house a woman’s body which has been interred for several months and from which all signs of identity have been removed. The first quarter of this book is given over to Chief Inspector Moresby’s rigorous and intelligent investigation as he tries to establish identity, going about things with an attitude which wouldn’t be out of place if attributed to Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French:
“I was wondering whether I was ever going to have the bit of luck with this case that we nearly always do get in the ones we’re successful with. One per cent luck and ninety-nine per cent hard work…that’s what detecting is; and neither of them a bit of use without the other.”
Moresby, through a doggedness rarely seen in Berkeley’s work, does in fact learn the identity of the victim and, much to his surprise, learns that there is a connection between her and the writer-cum-amateur-sleuth Roger Sheringham. Consulting Sheringham, Moresby sets the author the challenge of identifying the victim from notes taken while Sheringham was acting as a master at the school where the victim worked, and so we switch focus and encounter these people as Sheringham saw them before learning who has been killed at the halfway point. Then, of course, there’s the small matter of whodunnit to be resolved, with Moresby and Sheringham each working their own path.
One of the real successes of this book is Berkeley’s characterisations. It’s fair to say that you don’t come to his books expecting psychologically acute and true summations of people and their mores — for that you have his work under the names Frances Iles — but what he draws here is a series of fascinating portraits of the staff of Roland House school so that you really do know the people involved. It would be entirely possible to attribute an action to any of the people herein and be able to say with a high degree of confidence whether it is in keeping with their character: from the vague, henpecked headmaster Cecil Harrison to his terrifyingly efficient and no-nonsense daughter Amy, who actually runs the place, from the convention-bound master Mr. Parker to the meek and romantically-minded Mr. Duff, you’re given ample time in Berkeley’s superb rendering of life at the school to recognise these people, and to be encouraged to pick a victim and a murderer from among them.
Berkeley’s characters lean hard into unsympathetic cliche (“Whatever entered the field of Miss Jevons’s experience trickled out again through her mouth.”), but with such bluntness comes some wonderfully witty moments:
“I should prefer Miss Harrison to stay,” replied Mr. Rice, very formally and correctly.
Mr. Harrison blinked at him. People seldom wanted Amy to stay when there was a good chance of getting rid of her.
He’s as unsparing of his protagonists (“When there was any bragging of his own to do Roger had no hesitation in doing it; but he hated to have to listen to others.”) as he is of his minor characters (“In the pause that followed Mr. Worksop could almost be heard hurling his mind back, to say nothing of the thud with which it landed.”). When I first read this about 15 years ago I was unaware of Berkeley’s importance in the innovations being visited upon his beloved genre and a lot of the humour passed me by, but there can be little doubt that the man is having a lot of fun and wants you to know about it — c’mon, the Reverend Michael Stanford “beginning to doubt the omnipotence of the Almighty” is surely one of the funniest moments of the Golden Age.
The puzzle of how the body came to be buried in a house with which it has no connection is also a good one, and represents perhaps the only duff note in the book since the answer given is…vague in the extreme. Moresby goes about discovering this with impressive rigour once again, and Berkeley wants to enjoy himself at the expense of nosy maids and interfering live-in landlords (“There is very little that escapes the observation of those landlords and their wives. And when one of their floors is let to a single young woman, of attractive appearance, their vigilance is multiplied a hundred-fold.”), but this aspect of the plot — a key one, given it’s the principle around which the novel is built — sputters somewhat and fails to convince or even really answer for itself.
Sheringham’s psychological explanation for the murder, too, is slightly disappointing given the detection-focussed opening, and is a bit of a weak link, but given that it allows another playful aspect to be introduced in the final lines I’m willing to forgive it, if only because Berkeley is straining so hard at the leash of convention that frustrated him so. He cleverly utilises so many genre mainstays — enlisted men returning from the War with unregistered service revolvers, the eagerness with which the press will jump on any unusual murder, the frank confoundment of identifying a body which has been so cleverly disposed of — that you know his fingers were itching to uproot the expectations the average reader might have of how these books conclude, and I’m sure he irritated as many people as he delighted with his closing choice. Well, put me in the latter camp; I’m all for a bit of convention-baiting where this most inventive of genres is concerned.
There’s so much to enjoy in Berkeley’s playfulness here — the sequence in which Amy Harrison mentally fires the staff one by one, so that we might be kept guessing about our victim’s identity; one suspect needing to be convinced “that someone known to her had actually had the bad form to get herself murdered”; the Edmund Crispin-esque observation about buying a half-bottle of whisky — that I almost want to add a list of recommended pre-reading for the uninitiated, so that anyone picking this up as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics range has covered appropriate ground in the genre to ensure they get the most out of it. Added to The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and Jumping Jenny (1933) in the same series, however, we really are getting the very best of Berkeley to educate anyone willing to pay attention, and what a wonderful thing that is. Fingers crossed for the BL to add The Piccadilly Murder (1929) and Top Storey Murder (1931) to their Berkeley stable, so that the full cream of his output might be available once again.
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: The prose also holds lovely lines of wonderful understatement, which comes through in his depiction of the battle of the sexes. Now Berkeley, on a bad day, can be somewhat of a misogynist in his portrayal of women and in this story he does show women as man hunters or like anglers keen to reel in their fish. Yet this doesn’t become unpalatable as the way he depicts the male characters fairly balances it out, revealing the men to be just as calculating or psychologically weak enough that they don’t have strong enough resistance or inclination to prevent being pulled into matrimony.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: 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 [Freeman Wills] Crofts or even from [Henry] 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 whole piece comes across as uninspired and minimalist, sordid, humourless and dull.