Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Party to Die For

Mr. Pidgeon is a truly extraordinary fellow. A few months ago, he was a humble university lecturer, but after suddenly coming into an enormous fortune, he’s had pots of money and no idea what to do with it. So he does a very reasonable thing: he buys an island off the Portuguese government and purchases a splendid yacht and invites a group of quite ordinary people for the maiden voyage. It happens in Anthony Berkeley’s Panic Party, which sometimes gets the alternate title Mr. Pidgeon’s Island.

This voyage follows in the proud tradition of the Titanic, as the ship malfunctions off the coast of the island and the passengers are marooned there so that the boat can get repaired. Nobody is very happy about this, but Mr. Pidgeon is pleased as punch and proposes a game everyone can play to pass the time: one of the people on the island, he claims, is a murderer, and he has conclusive proof of their crime that will go to the police upon return to England. He even proposes prizes, but by more or less unanimous consent, people refuse to partake in the game. Later, however, Pidgeon confides to one of the passengers, amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, that the entire game is a hoax cooked up just for the stay, which he’s engineered—the group is completely cut off from the outside world and will have to cooperate until the boat returns in a fortnight, or murder could be done.

Fat chance of avoiding that! The next morning, something is discovered floating in the water, and it turns out to be Mr. Pidgeon himself. He has apparently tumbled to his death from a cliff. Was it suicide? Was it an accident? Or was it murder? To the group stranded on the island, murder is clearly the answer, and although Roger keeps telling them that Pidgeon’s story was a mere hoax, they refuse to believe him. It seems that by pure coincidence, Mr. Pidgeon’s words actually applied to someone in the group, and that coincidence cost him his life…

This truly is Anthony Berkeley’s ode to misanthropy. These civilised people descend more and more into primitivism and it brings out everyone’s nasty side. For instance, Mr. Pidgeon’s cousin, Mr. Fayre, has a wife who is quite willing to… er… acquaint herself with all the males. Most intimately, I might add. This causes much friction with others in the party, especially Mrs. Bray, wife of a brash and possibly shady businessman. Two young people, Unity and Harry, hit it off well at first, but over time, the relationship becomes far from cordial. And so on… Berkeley manages to write this theme very well overall, but every once in a while, he’ll ruin a stunning effect by commenting on his theme outright. This is usually Roger Sheringham’s fault, as he muses on just how primitive the group is becoming.

Once again, Anthony Berkeley mercilessly mocks poor Roger Sheringham in the process, who constantly believes he is the last remaining vestige of sanity on the island— but when it comes to important moments of crisis control, Roger completely loses his head and is upstaged by the elderly Lady Darracott! There are other very fun characters; one of the most delightful is Sir John, who manages to be the focal point of the book’s most uproariously funny scene when he annexes the island, declares himself king, and grabs a handful of the women to be his harem.

The book’s great strengths therefore lie in atmosphere and character—and so it’s a shame that its flaws are found in the same places. Sometimes, like I’ve mentioned, atmosphere can be overdone, but with characters, Berkeley has a far more fundamental problem: there are too many of them. Counting the victim, 15 people are stranded on the island. Most of these are interesting, but a small minority are so colourless that I found myself literally forgetting who they were, particularly the poet, Mr. Combe, who is practically forgotten for a large chunk of the book until he starts playing a major role in the third act.

In many ways, Panic Party bears similarities to Agatha Christie’s famous work, And Then There Were None. However, Christie took the general idea of this book and ran with it in a completely different direction, making her book a masterpiece. She cut the character list down to 10 and made them all murderers, with one being a crazed vigilante out for justice, killing the fellow guests. She also managed the theme of the descent into savagery better than Berkeley, with more subtlety and effectiveness overall. She also came up with a more creative plot, using a nursery rhyme to predict the deaths and peppering her story with clues and red herrings.

Because ultimately, that is the great shortcoming of Berkeley’s book. The mystery will be solved, but you never do find out just why the dickens Roger Sheringham came to his conclusions. He simply confronts the killer with their guilt, they tell the entire story, and life goes on, without any explanation as to how he knew. At the same time, Berkeley manages to withhold clues from the reader and basically not play very fair with his mystery, which in any case doesn’t end on a very surprising note. But then again, that was the intention all along, as his dedication informs us:

My dear Milward Kennedy: You once challenged me, in public print, to write a book in which the only interest should be the detection. I have no hesitation in refusing to do anything so tedious, and instead take the greatest pleasure in dedicating to you a book which is precisely the opposite, which breaks every rule of the austere Club to which we both belong, and which will probably earn my expulsion from its membership.

Unfortunately, I think Berkeley made a miscalculation here. There is plenty of stuff apart from the puzzle to keep readers interested, but the puzzle truly falls flat and it’s disappointing, particularly when you consider how brilliantly ingenious Agatha Christie would be with a very similar idea. Overall, Panic Party had potential to be the best Berkeley I’d read thus far, but ultimately, a series of flaws adds up and it falls short of the margin it could have attained. I still highly recommend it, but don’t be misled into expecting a brilliantly ingenious, one-of-a-kind mystery.

3 comments:

  1. I read this book a few years ago, but didn't think too much of it as a detective story. However, the disintegration of a party of civilized people still offers an interesting read and another one of his books on which Christie drew for one of her own books.

    By the way, I understand that, for the time being, you're going to concentrate on obscure detective stories and I see you already picked up a copy of a Christopher Bush novel.

    This has me worried. I expect a copy this upcoming week of a somewhat obscure detective story, but somehow I get the feeling that the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler is setting us up again. If that happens, again, I want you to use your contacts to get us an exorcist.

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  2. Fascinating stuff Patrick, thanks - I really enjoyed reading about this one as I've never even come across this particular book by Berkeley and I generally like his stuff too and am always a appreciative of a book that tries to guy the genre if it's clever enough to do it well - sounds like this one only gets about two thirds of the way there though.

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  3. @TomCat
    Harry Stephen Keeler's ghost has been up to its old tricks again, hasn't it? I expect it won't pass up such a juicy opportunity-- if you happen to be referring to something by the Teilhets, John Rhode, or JJ Connington, we might as well give up.

    I have to agree that the disintegration of civilisation is an interesting facet of this book, but that's why its limitations as a detective story are so much more disappointing.

    @Sergio
    That about sums it up-- for much of the book I was convinced it could turn out to be Berkeley's best, until the disappointing finale.

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