Two very intriguing British Library Crime Classics for you today – both featuring Anthony Berkeley’s amateur detective / crime writer, Roger Sheringham.
Murder in the Basement (1932)
A very enjoyable mystery, and an excellent introduction to Berkeley’s work.
The story opens with the discovery of a body, carefully concealed in the basement of a rented house in Lewisham – much to the horror of newlyweds Reginald and Molly Dane, who have just taken possession of their new home. The meticulous Chief Inspector Moseley and his team quickly confirm a few important particulars about the body – a young woman aged twenty to thirty, found naked except for a pair of gloves, probably murdered some six months earlier by a shot to the head. That said, the victim’s identity proves much trickier to establish due to the lack of any papers or visible distinguishing features on the body.
One of the most interesting things about this novel is its imaginative structure, the first third of which focuses on Moseley’s quest to put a name to the dead woman. After a few blind alleys and less than fruitful enquiries, the police trace the victim to Roland House, a boys’ Prep School on the outskirts of London.
Now, it just so happens that Moseley’s great friend, the detective writer Roger Sheringham, deputised for a Master at the very same school the previous year – partly as a means of gathering background for one of his novels. So, when Moseley calls on his friend for support, Sheringham offers the Inspector the manuscript of his unfinished book – a novel based directly on the Roland House staff, just as he perceived them at the time.
“…There isn’t a development in it which I didn’t see in preparation; and you might say that there isn’t an action for which I haven’t definite evidence. It isn’t difficult, you know, to forecast people’s major actions when one has studied their minor ones. The mind never alters its sweep.” (pp. 65–66)
Sheringham’s manuscript forms the second section of Berkeley’s novel – presented to the reader with the characters’ real names. Happily, it’s a most entertaining story, rife with all manner of personal grudges, petty jealousies and emotional entanglements amongst the staff. In short, we have a very well-drawn set of characters here, with plenty of potential for mischief and mayhem.
By the beginning of Basement’s final third, which returns to Moseley’s investigations, we know the victim’s name and her former role at the school. The murderer’s identity also seems clear cut, along with the emerging details of the motive. Nevertheless, there is the question of hard evidence to be gathered – convincing enough to secure a conviction in court. Interestingly, Sheringham also plays a crucial role in establishing the nuts and bolts of what actually happened to prompt the murder, drawing on his experiences at the school and various insights into character.
In summary then, this is a very intriguing mystery with a creative set-up and structure – I could quite happily read a whole novel from Sheringham’s pen, such is the entertaining nature of that engaging second section.
The final solution, when it comes, has a few surprises up its sleeve – possibly a little contrived at one or two points, but that’s a minor quibble in the broad scheme of things. There’s also some lovely humour running through the book – not just in the antics at Roland House School but in the detailed detective work, too. I’ll finish with a passage from an early interview with a neighbour as the police try to establish the history of the Lewisham house.
Relations? Well, there was a nephew; but such a nice young man; quite impossible that… his name and address? Well, his name was Staples too, but as for his address… wasn’t he in the navy, Jane? Or was it the merchant service? Anyhow, Miss Staples called him “Jim,” if that was any help. It was? How wonderful to think of oneself actually helping Scotland Yard! (p. 35)
Jumping Jenny (1933)
A very entertaining example of the ‘inverted mystery’ genre, where the identity of the murderer is known to the reader (but not the investigators) at an early stage.
Here the action centres on a fancy-dress party being hosted by Sheringham’s friend, Ronald Stratton, and his sister, Celia, at Ronald’s spacious country house in the home counties. Most of the guests have entered into the spirit of things, dressing as either murderers or their victims, as per the gathering’s theme. To add a macabre touch to the evening, Ronald has set up mock gallows on the property’s flat roof, complete with three stuffed figures, two male and one female – the Jumping Jacks and Jenny partly referenced in the novel’s title.
As the party gets going, Sheringham becomes increasingly fascinated by Ronald’s sister-in-law, Ena Stratton, clearly an exhibitionist who craves to be the centre of attention, irrespective of how much trouble this creates for those around her. Virtually everyone at the event has a good reason to dislike Ena intensely, and when Sheringham finally meets her, he too is far from impressed.
“Shall we dance?” said Roger.
“I’d rather have a drink. I haven’t had one for at least half an hour.” She spoke slowly, and her voice was not unpleasant, rather deep and with a particularly clear enunciation. She managed to convey that for a woman of her sophistication not to have had a drink for at least half an hour was quite too ridiculous. (pp. 42–43)
Ena claims to be thinking of ending it all – a cry that other partygoers put down to attention-seeking theatrics rather than any serious threat. Nevertheless, when Ena is subsequently found hanging from the roof-top gallows as the party enters its finally stages, her earlier talk of suicide takes on a different light. The reader knows, however, that Ena’s death was not as straightforward as might appear at first sight, having observed the woman’s final moments on the roof.
The intrigue really kicks in when Sheringham notices something amiss with the scene of Ena’s death, a crucial detail that seems at odds with the hypothesis of suicide. So, he meddles with the evidence, hoping to shield a friend he suspects of being involved in a murder. But by doing this, Sheringham unwittingly puts himself in the firing line, prompting another guest to suspect foul play – to the point where Sheringham could be viewed as a prime suspect. Jumping Jenny is a very engaging mystery that plays with various conventions of the genre. It’s really rather entertaining to watch Sheringham as he rushes around, trying to make each attendee’s story fit with the alerted ‘crime scene’, digging a deeper hole for himself as he goes. The novel’s tone is gently humorous, with some darkly comic moments for sharpness and bite, while the characters themselves are nicely differentiated and well-drawn. There’s even a little twist at the end, just to keep the reader on their toes throughout.
All in all, another very welcome addition to the BLCC line-up – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing review copies of both books.