The reappearing corpse…
The last time I reviewed an Anthony Berkeley short story, I wasn’t overly impressed. So, since I loved the one Martin Edwards has included in the latest of the British Library classic crime collections, Murder at the Manor, it seems only fair to redress the balance. Edwards tells us that Berkeley was praised by Agatha Christie, amongst others, for the intricacy of his plotting, and this story is a great example of that. So here goes for this week’s…
The Mystery of Horne’s Copse
by Anthony Berkeley
It is over two years ago now and I can begin to look at it in its proper perspective; but even still my mind retains some echo of the incredulity, the horror, the dreadful doubts as to my own sanity and the sheer, cold-sweating terror which followed that ill-omened 29th of May.
Hugh Chappell , our narrator, has been visiting the family of his new fiancée, Sylvia Rigby. During the evening, they discuss Hugh’s cousin, Frank, currently on holiday in Europe with his wife. Frank and Hugh have had a difficult relationship – Frank is next in line to Hugh’s estate, should Hugh die childless, and he’s also a bit of a bad lot, though he seems to have settled down a little since he married.
Later, when Hugh prepares to take his leave, he discovers his car has broken down so he decides to walk home, taking a shortcut through Horne’s Copse. It is a dark night but although Hugh can’t see the path, he knows the copse so well he has no fear of missing his way. But halfway through, his foot strikes against an obstacle lying across the path, causing him to stumble.
I struck a match and looked at it. I do not think I am a particularly nervous man, but I felt a creeping sensation in the back of my scalp as I stood staring down by the steady light of the match. The thing was a body – the body of a man; and it hardly took the ominous black hole in the centre of his forehead, its edges spangled with red dew, to tell me that he was very dead indeed.
Worse is to come! Peering closer, Hugh recognises the body as that of his cousin Frank. But that can’t be – Hugh received a postcard from him from Italy only that day. Rushing home, Hugh contacts the police and returns with them to the copse. But the body has gone along with all trace of it ever having existed! The police think Hugh’s hoaxing them, but Hugh’s doctor, who knows Hugh suffered from shell-shock during the war, fears he might have had a hallucination.
No more comes to light and gradually the matter fades into the background. Until some weeks later, Hugh’s car again has a problem, and he again walks through the copse at night. And again, at the very same place, he stumbles over a body – Frank! This time stabbed in the chest. Checking that he is definitely dead, Hugh rushes home, phones the police and his doctor, and then hurries back to the copse. But again, the corpse is gone!
By now, even Hugh is beginning to doubt his own sanity, so he and Sylvia take a long holiday. On their return, Hugh hopes his nerves will have stopped playing tricks on him. But the very next time he walks through the copse, he again comes across Frank’s dead body!
This time I stayed to make no examination. In utter panic I took to my heels and ran. Whither, or with what idea, I had no notion. My one feeling was to get away from the place and as soon and as quickly as possible.
Without really being aware of what he’s doing, Hugh gets on a train to London. When he gets there, the newsboys are calling out about a body found in the woods. This time, the corpse was found, and it is indeed Frank. The police suspect the whole thing is a ruse of Hugh’s to murder Frank and get off with a plea of insanity, while his doctor isn’t altogether convinced that he’s not insane. But fortunately, Hugh meets an old school-friend, amateur ‘tec Roger Sheringham, who is convinced that Hugh is the victim of a plot…
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This is a great story. Originally published as a serial, it’s split into short chapters each with a cliffhanger ending, and is very well-written. The mysterious reappearance of the corpse gives the whole thing a rather creepy, chilling feel, especially when Hugh begins to doubt his own sanity. I did work out part of the plot, but it’s more complex than it looks at first sight, with a nice twist before the end. Reasonably fair play though, I feel. The characterisation of both Hugh and Sylvia is excellent, with Sylvia in particular a likeable and intelligent character, reminiscent in some ways of Agatha Christie’s Tuppence Beresford. Sheringham, whom I didn’t much like as a detective in the last story I read, is much less annoying in this one, and also takes a bit of a back seat, letting Hugh and Sylvia do the bulk of the legwork. It’s not simply about who murdered Frank – the real mystery is how and why the corpse kept reappearing…
Unfortunately, I can’t find an online version to link to, but Murder at the Manor is out now in paper format and for Kindle. I’ll be reviewing the full collection shortly, and this story will definitely be featuring as one of the highlights.
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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀