Saturday, November 15, 2014

Anthony Berkeley: Murder in the Basement ,1932

The novel goes back to the period of greatest international success and the height of his literary activity: of the same year is Before the Fact (The suspect) that had a well-known film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock's nine years later; the year before, Berkeley had published another of his great success, Aforethought Malice (1931). And in 1933 will publish another novel fundamental: Jumping Jenny. The plot is gruesome.
Two newlywed return from their honeymoon and take up residence in a rented house. While she unravels the bags, he goes to inspect the basement where he would keep his wines. But a particular catches his attention: in a corner,  the brick floor is sunken, as if someone had dug to hide something. He thinks about a treasure, but instead finds a corpse of at least six months old, so decomposed beyond recognition and that by chance you can not understand that it was a female and had a scar in one of her thighs. The body is naked, but on hands, it is a pair of gloves. Why?
The Inspector Moresby Scotland Yard navigates in the dark: Who was the woman? And how did she end in the basement? Why did she have the gloves? The previous tenant was an old above all suspicion, and the date of death would seem to coincide in the period of August, when the old woman was on vacation and the house was empty: who could have the keys? Her relatives? The two only,  are two her nephews but they have solid alibis so as to be immediately ousted from the investigation. So what? At the painstaking police investigation does not miss a thing. Yet Moresby is unable to give a name to the body! The gloves are commonplace, and house by house investigations do not lead to results because no one in the houses nearby, saw nothing. It would be enough to know whose is that body and he - he's sure -  would be on horse, because the murderess would not escape.
But ... you do not find anything. As long as there is an his intuition: the scar. On the basis of the autopsy is established that the victim had been operated to the femur and was applied a metal plate welded to the bone after a fracture: the fortune that smiles is given by the fact that the plate is made of a material now abandoned, used only as an experiment in a few cases and certificates. In short, discarding all those who were not to have disappeared and whose relatives would have immediately reported their missing, you get to identify the victim in a Mary Waterhouse who had managed to get a job in a private school at Allingford, Roland House, in the staff administration. 
Moresby remembers that the writer and amateur detective said Roger Sherringham, who helped him  in many cases, has been at the school long before; and so he informs him to ask if he remembers something about the environment. In fact, contrarily to what were the initial beliefs of the Inspector, once known the identity of the victim has not arrived to the identification of the murderer. And not even leaving the other opposite, that by the place of grave, he come to some result, because there is no way of figuring out how the body has arrived there, and especially those who might have the key of the house because has not been reported in the past, any attempt to break in to the house.
Roger willingly accepts to help the Inspector, even he gives him a report that was drawn up long before picking his impressions about the people working in the school and that should serve as a canvas for a novel ever written. Basing on this Roger manages to figure out who might have been the killed woman without knowing it from the Inspector. However, to the next request by Moresby to be infiltrated by the police, he refuses, as the people he described welcomed him as a friend and he refuses to spy them now.
In practice he observes the actions of the inspector, acting when he considers appropriate it, because thet come to the identification of the case.
Also Roger does not figure out how Mary ended underground, in the cellar, until a disclosure of the police reveals that the bone plate was purchased from a prison, where the chick had been locked up a few years earlier, with a different name, as thief pickpocket: had slipped at the time of the capture of the police, and had broken his leg. Next, repented, after a course of shorthand-typing and some other works, and with a false surname she had been able to get a job at the school. So it is possible that Mary had not completely abandoned her occupation of the past, or that dated back to the time when she was a pickpocket, a theft at house of the old mistress of the house in Lewisham, # 4 in Burnt Oak, and also this is confirmed. So she had the key. But why did she end there?
The investigations of the police in Roland House show a very diverse picture: to direct the school, nominally is the principal Harrison, but truely it’s the daughter, Amy, who directs, drawing more than a dislike. Amy is related to Mr. Wargrave, a Professor of Chemistry: the two, despite not loving, they know that only together they can achieve their purposes; then there is Elsa Crimp, another teacher romantically linked to the curate; Mr. Duff, Mr. Parker, Mr. Rice also their teachers: this is the lover of Mrs. Phyllis Harrison, the wife of the principal, who does not seem to notice anything, losing only in the way the school; finally, there is the housekeeper, Jevons.
Finally, the interviews reveal a particularly revealing: Mr. Wargrave was seen coming out from the room of Miss Mary Whitehouse, when the former was in school. Later it was known that the young lady was pregnant and that she would go away being to get married to an Australian: proof of this, was a ring with diamonds and emeralds that she sported on her finger.
The Inspector is convinced that he has found her murderer, and by this time the whole investigation is initiated in order to demonstrate that Wargrave killed Whitehouse, and to find the weapon. But the evidences are not there and the clues are so uncertain that not  even when Wargrave gets caught with a .45 revolver, his pistol during the First World War, whose the caliber corresponds to the bullet that killed the woman , you can connect him to her, because the gun is dirty and lacks the shell indicted. In conclusion ..
Then enters Sherringham and at a pyrotechnical finale he manages… to exonerate Wargrave, identifying the real murderer. However, he doesn’t deliver him to the police, because his purpose is not the purpose from Moresby, and even he invents a plausible story for the use of the Inspector, giving him a solution and in the same time saving from hanging Wargrave who took on himself the crime of another, and saving the real murderer who killed because he had blackmailed.
Another novel with a penetrating psychological insight, Murder in the Basement, is only apparently a procedural: in fact the procedural serves only to provide a basis for the survey, from which the Inspector and Detective diverge at a certain point in the identification of the guilty. The survey by Sherringham is very similar to that by Poirot: he uses the deduction, to which is added an in-depth analysis of human nature. And as Agatha Christie, Berkeley is also an innovator: in fact this novel in the history of detective whodunnit, reserves more of a surprise[i].

What I once again emphasize is the magnitude of Berkeley, not only one of the great masters of the British psychological police novel but also one of the most successful writers in the mechanism of multiple solutions: to frame the development in a sense, directing the reader's concentration on a given subject and then, at the appropriate time, rejecting it, and providing a solution entirely plausible, even more than it had envisaged until then. In this sense, here is the peculiarity of this novel: if for all its conduct seems a thriller as the victim is well known and well the murderer and and so the survey is only paid to see to realize the clues and turn them into overwhelming evidence , only to the end with the real solution, which runs in part from that envisaged until that moment, Sherringham can once again beat Moresby, and with a soaring, distorts the performance of the novel, directing it in the wake of Whodunnit classic.
In most, the style is crackling, never verbose and never tedious. And once again, the accuracy of Berkeley remembering true facts of blood and place them in the context of the novel affirms (The  Rainshill Case: the Deeming spouses), to make it more close to the British reader of those times. In addition, Berkeley, within the context of the narrative, put the humorous, which serve to better characterize the protagonists: as when Sherringham proposes to inspector who vowed to go away and to can not waste any more time, to be his guest at dinner: the only mention of tripe, a culinary specialty no british, and very Latin, instead convinces him to give up his commitments.

Pietro De Palma

[i] Read the article: Anthony Berkeley Vs Patricia McGerr

1 comment:

  1. A very comprehensive and insightful review. Thank you!