4 Burnt Oak Lane was a dream come true, the first home for newlyweds Reginald and Molly Dane. But when Reginald decides that he needs to explore every inch of his new house, he finds something that turns the dream into a nightmare – someone has buried a corpse in the basement.
Chief Inspector Moresby is on the case, but whoever the killer was, they were very efficient – there is no trace of identification on the body, bar a metal plate in her leg. Eventually he narrows it down to the fact that the victim was, until recently, working at an exclusive school near London.
As it happens, amateur sleuth and professional a@#&hole Roger Sheringham had been working at that school just before the victim disappeared. And he happens to have written a book about it…
OK, it’s Anthony Berkeley time. Berkeley is something of a bone of contention for me. To many fans of classic detective fiction, it’s like he was the second coming. To me, however, I’ve never seen it. Admittedly, before this, I’d only read three titles. The Poisoned Chocolates Case is good, but I don’t rate it as highly as some. The Wychford Poisoning Case is poor and Jumping Jenny is, in my opinion, a horrible book. Yes, I can see what he was doing with the latter one, and I can see why some people really rate it, but the game playing takes it too far from what I expect from a mystery novel and morally, it’s just incredibly distasteful.
The books recommended to me, to change my mind, were Murder In The Basement and The Piccadilly Murder. Let’s hope the second one is on the British Library’s radar, as it’s all but unobtainable, but this one, obviously, isn’t. It was released in the Crime Classic range late last year, and it’s… perfectly fine.
It’s structured in three sections – Moresby investigates, Sheringham’s book, Moresby and Sheringham investigate, basically. The idea of Sheringham’s book seemed to be something of a novelty and I was expecting Berkeley to do something clever with it, but that never seemed to materialise, it basically just a flashback. Berkeley is playing a “whowasdunin” game for the first half of the book, before turning it into a “whodunnit”.
Having said that, the final section is one of those where it seems to be about whether the obvious villain can be caught out or not. Of course, there might be a final twist in the tale, and I’m not saying whether there is or not, but the almost ending of the story is very well done and very satisfying.
“Almost ending”? Yeah, he blows it with the last two pages, which is an excellent summary of why I generally don’t like Berkeley. I know other sleuths do the same thing on occasion, but generally it’s for a good reason. This, it just seemed that Berkeley had realised that Sheringham had been acting a bit too much like a normal sleuth and threw that bit in.
So for the first n-2 pages, a very enjoyable read. Shame about the very end…
Well, I’m glad you had a more positive experience with most of this. Maybe we’ll make a Berkeleyite of you yet 🙂
ha yes this is a rave Berkeley review by Steve’s standards lol
Everything is relative, Kate. Yes, it’s up there with the best Berkeley book that I’ve read, but I’d still prefer to read a number of other authors…
Pretty sure that’s a no, but yes, this was a better read. Really surprised that he didn’t try any real tricks with the middle section though
Similarly, I’ve read 3-4 Berkeleys (including this one) and have a couple more on the shelf. Generally I rather like the set-up but then he can’t leave things alone and ends up annoying me. I get the feeling he enjoyed Trent’s Last Case just that little bit too much.
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That’s a book I need to revisit at some point…
I last read TLC roughly a year ago. I could see why all the GA people were so bowled over and how colossally influential it was and I quite enjoyed it… In fact I felt about it almost exactly as I’ve felt about every Berkeley I’ve read. I suppose it depends on the kind of mystery you enjoy – I’m not desperately keen on the inverted genre or stuff with a blurb to the effect that the contents “fizz with humour, elan and a playful disregard for the tropes”. On the whole I think I want the tropes regarded if you don’t mind. But that’s just me.
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I’d stay away from Jumping Jenny then…
JJ is one of the couple on my shelf that I’ve not read yet. I’ve been avoiding it based on what you (and a few other people) have said. My shelf is fairly well-stocked so it’ll be a while before I have to bite that bullet.
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The Piccadilly Murder might change your mind about Berkeley, but Murder in the Basement is hardly likely to! I thought it was very humdrum (https://grandestgame.wordpress.com/list-of-authors/anthony-berkeley/murder-in-the-basement-anthony-berkeley/); it’s 20 years since I read it, but my memories are of tedious, slogging police detection and women sitting in front of mirrors popping their pimples.
Otherwise, I would suggest:
Top Storey Murder (if you can find a copy) – John Dickson Carr thought it Berkeley’s best book
Trial and Error – his masterpiece
Not to Be Taken – an excellent village poisoning mystery, with an interestingly equivocal non-resolution
Death in the House – terrorism in the House of Commons
The Silk Stocking Murders is fun and clever, and influenced a Agatha Christie novel, but some elements might have dated badly
Yeah, I’d recommend Top Storey Murder and Trial and Error, with Poisoned Chocolates for me the best of Berkeley. I think the later Christie novel was far more influenced by the Chesterton story, which I consider superior to either the Berkeley or the Christie book (especially in its clueing).
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The ABC Murders features a character called “A.B.C.” who is a silk stocking salesman. Coincidence? I think not.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence either (although there are much more remarkable coincidences, within and without the genre). But even assuming the tribute, I think that the Chesterton story is a far less diffused (and therefore more direct) predecessor of the central primary concept of deception. I also think that Chesterton’s story is much more satisfyingly clued than either the Berkeley or Christie novel (indeed, for a novel with such a high reputation, The ABC Murders is a particularly thinly clued puzzle plot. There’s practically nothing there).
This, I think, is part of the difficulty with Berkeley: he wrote with a different intent to a lot of his peers, and so the problems in recommending him are that you sort of have to be on board with what he’s doing.
Think of it like the Paul Verhoven movie of Starship Troopers: it’s a thoroughly average shoot-em-up until you realise how satirical he;s being, and then it becomes simply brilliant…but if the satire doesn’t work for you, the film remains at best an average violent shoot-em-up.
Which is my way of getting round to saying that I, an avowed Berkeley fan, wouldn’t recommend Trial and Error or Not to be Taken to anyone who was unconvinced about the man’s talents. Both are, to my eyes, tedious in the extreme.
Piccadilly Murder and Top Storey Murder are wonderful though. It is sincerely to be hoped that the BL bring out one or both of those.
Completely take your point, and the Starship Troopers analogy is spot on – although I know someone who thought it was a brilliant action movie and never got the satirical side of it, no matter how many times he watched it or we explained it to him.
While I get that Berkeley is stretching, twisting and breaking the genre, I’ve found that this can take the book too far from the genre that I want to read.
Having said that, this book doesn’t do that – apart from Sheringham’s behaviour at the very end, this is a well done but extremely standard mystery novel, so I’m concerned that the books recommended to me to enjoy Berkeley are those where he is, for want of a better word, behaving himself. I will take a look at Piccadiily Murder and Top Storey Murder but neither of them are in my collection at the moment. But I think I’m going to have to accept that, in general, Berkeley just isn’t for me.
Well, just taken a pilgrimage to the Bodleian and have now read The Piccadilly Murder. Stay tuned…