Murder in the Basement (Roger Sheringham 8) by Anthony Berkeley

Whowasdunin?

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a newlywed couple move into their new house, their happiness soon turns to dismay on discovering a body buried in the basement. Enter Chief Inspector Moresby, whose first task is to discover the identity of the victim – a young woman who has been dead for just a few months. His investigations lead him to a small preparatory school, Roland House, and he remembers that his friend, the novelist and occasional amateur detective Roger Sheringham, had worked at the school for a few weeks the year before to get some local colour for a novel he had been planning to write, So Moresby calls on Sheringham’s knowledge of the staff of Roland House, and soon decides who is the culprit. But now the task begins of trying to prove it – not easy when the assumed murderer has so carefully ensured there would be no evidence to link him to the crime…

This has an unusual structure for a mystery novel which is successful in parts and rather less so in others. The first section follows Moresby as he and his team carry out the painstaking work of identifying the victim. This is quite interesting and is short enough that it doesn’t have time to start dragging. By the end of it, Moresby knows who the victim was, but the reader is kept in the dark a little longer.

Sheringham, it turns out, has written the first few chapters of his planned novel, using the various staff members as models for his characters. He gives the manuscript to Moresby, and Moresby challenges him (and, therefore, the reader) to name the victim based on his knowledge of the people involved. So the second part is Sheringham’s manuscript, through which we learn about all the personalities involved and see the tensions that exist among the group in the rather claustrophobic setting of a boys’ boarding school. I enjoyed this section – Sheringham’s authorial “voice” has a tone of mild mockery which makes his depiction of the characters quite amusing. In fact, I think I’d have been quite happy if the whole story had been told by Sheringham as an insider at the school, rather than the more formal investigation by Moresby. Martin Edwards calls this section the first appearance of a “whowasdunin” element in a mystery novel, a technique that has been used often by other authors since. I must admit I didn’t think there was any real way to solve that aspect – any of the female characters could easily have been the victim, for any number of reasons.

Anthony Berkeley

At the end of section two, Moresby reveals the identity of the victim, and from that extrapolates who he thinks is the only possible murderer. So the third section is mostly of Moresby trying to get evidence to prove his theory, followed at the very end by Sheringham taking over to wrap up the case. This third section didn’t work so well for me. I felt it went on too long and became repetitive, and I wasn’t convinced that Moresby would so quickly have stopped considering other solutions. And when Sheringham did his stuff, it seemed abrupt and too pat – he leaps almost magically to the correct interpretation of events based on little more than guesswork, though he would no doubt say it was founded on his understanding of human psychology. I felt that the victim got rather forgotten in the end – it all became something of a game of cat and mouse between the men in the story, a battle of wills, and none of them seemed too bothered about getting justice for the murdered woman.

So a bit of a mixed bag, enjoyably and entertainingly written but not wholly satisfactory in terms of the mystery solving element. I was surprised by how little Sheringham appeared in it, and rather regretted that since I found him more interesting and amusing than the somewhat stolid and unimaginative Moresby. I enjoyed it overall, though, and certainly enough to want to read more of the Sheringham novels.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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28 thoughts on “Murder in the Basement (Roger Sheringham 8) by Anthony Berkeley

  1. I see what you mean about the ups and downs of this one, FictionFan. That structure is interesting, and unusual, and I actually give Berkeley credit for experimenting with it. But it also sounds as though it didn’t – is ‘flow’ the word? – the way it might. Hmm… I have liked the other Sheringham mysteries I’ve read, so I might try this one. But it does sound a bit different.

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    • Yes, it felt distinctly like three separate parts, each with a different kind of style, and each with varying levels of interest. Had the best section been at the end rather than in the middle it would have probably worked better! But I do like his writing and I like Sheringham as a ‘tec, so I’m keen to read more of them.

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  2. The premise interests me. But I wonder if I will have a similar reaction as you about the last part of the book. Perhaps people back in the day had a ton of time to read meandering books. On this side of the computer chip, it’s much more difficult with brain patterns having shifted. I find myself wanting authors to just get to the point and move on.

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    • The mystery novels from this era tend to be at least a hundred and often two hundred pages shorter than contemporary crime, and even so occasionally they can be a little long! This is a large part of why I find contemporary crime such a bore quite often – all padding, no plot!

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  3. I haven’t read anything by this author, nor have I read a “whowasdunin,” to my recollection. I might have to give this one a look — purely as research material, of course. Not that this is a technique I intend to try, but just to expand my knowledge. Thanks for reviewing it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Once I started to think about it I could remember two or three more recent examples where the whowasdunin term could apply, though it is quite rare, I think. It can work well – Gillian White’s Copycat is an excellent example – but it can also be as frustrating as the “that day” trope. This one is somewhere in the middle…

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    • It was still an enjoyable read even if I felt the best bit came in the middle – I’m sure I’d have rated it higher if the end had been the best bit! But well worth reading if you get the chance… 😀

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    • It is entertaining but a bit variable – I enjoyed it but it wouldn’t make my top ten of BL mysteries. However I’ll look forward to reading more of them! The covers are always great, aren’t they?

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    • I think that’s quite possible – they certainly churned the books out! And it’s always good to see one of them try to vary the format a bit, even if it’s not wholly successful.

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  4. Even in his less successful books Anthony Berkeley is an interesting writer since he was willing to try out all sorts of things. But the third part of this one does sound like a bit of a let-down. The thing I don’t like about his books is that too often his dislike of women really shows through.

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    • I’ve only read a couple of his novels, but have read quite a few of his short stories in various anthologies. I always enjoy them, though so far he hasn’t quite reached the elite heights of favourite writer. I want to read more of the Sheringham novels though – I enjoy him as a character. It’s interesting that you say that about him disliking women. I hadn’t read enough to know there was a pattern, but I did notice in this one that the women weren’t very well treated, especially the victim, who was little more than an excuse for the men to get competitive about solving the crime.

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  5. Hmm I’m not so familiar with the ‘whowasdunin’ element, I’m trying to think of other examples of where I’ve read it, but I’m coming up short. Is it basically when you don’t know who the victim is for an extended period?

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    • Yes, but also that you know it must be one of a few options. I’ve been trying to think of examples people might have read. The Guest List by Lucy Foley, Force of Nature by Jane Harper? In modern crime, it’s most likely to be that a murder is done or a corpse is found in a prologue, but we don’t know who. So then when the book goes back to tell the story leading up to the murder, you know one of the characters is going to die but not which one… It happens reasonably often, I think, though I hadn’t heard the whowasdunin term for it before.

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