Panic Party (1934)



My review:

Although Sayers thought it one of the nastiest books she’d ever read, Panic Party is one of Berkeley’s most fascinating books, an innovative exploration of human psychology under stress—probably the ancestor of Christie’s Ten Little Niggers, Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman, and Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  The puckish Mr. Pidgeon strands fourteen guests on an island he has bought, tells them one of them is a murderer, and watches the reaction.  Although he intended it as a joke, he is pushed off a cliff—and it becomes clear that Mr. Pidgeon’s joke may have been no laughing matter.  Sheringham takes charge in an effort to maintain civilisation and prevent an emotional volcano from erupting, and has a very difficult job of it, with madness and violence breaking out all over the place.  In Berkeley’s view, society equals restraint, a mask concealing the individual’s true character and feelings; with society gone, the mask vanishes, and the raw person is left.  This is tremendous stuff.  The solution is of inferior quality: Sheringham fails to explain how he reached the solution, and the murderer’s identity is an anti-climax.  Of course, the only way of avoiding anti-climax would have been to make Sheringham the murderer—and that would never do.


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