WARNING: The following contains mild spoilers to Anthony Berkeley’s book Not to be Taken, though it never divulges the identity of the murderer. You may thus want to skip it if you intend to read the book someday.
Not to be Taken, known in the United States as A Puzzle in Poison, is not one of Anthony Berkeley’s most famous works nor one of the most frequently commented. The absence of any series character or literary or thematic gimmick probably accounts for the relative obscurity of this book, perhaps the closest to a « straight » detective novel Berkeley ever wrote. It also had the misfortune of coming up the same year as one of the author’s canonical masterpieces, Trial and Error, so that comparisons have inevitably arisen, often to Not to be Taken‘s detriment. And yet the book has had its admirers over the years; French critic Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, who translated it, thought it to be one of Berkeley’s masterpieces. I happen to agree with him on this, but the point of this article is not to discuss the book’s literary merits. Even if it was a weak entry in the ABC catalogue, Not to be Taken would deserve closer scrutiny – because of the time when it was written and what it has to say about it.
Not to be Taken was published in 1937, one year before Munich and at a time when it became increasingly obvious that the world was heading for another war. The book deals as is often the case with Berkeley with the « ethics » of murder. The murderer thinks that taking someone’s life can be justified in some instances in the name of the « common good » and actually commits murder for this very reason, much to the narrator’s disapproval and disgust, and gets away with it or so it seems at the end of the book. Such an opinion and behaviour are not unheard of in Berkeley’s oeuvre, as they can be found in the earlier Jumping Jenny and the aforementioned Trial and Error – but there was a bit of flippancy at work in both books that is completely absent from Not to be Taken. Berkeley doesn’t try to have the reader sympathize with the murderer and the victim while flawed is not thoroughly unlikeable and certainly not deserving of his fate. For the first and probably last time in his non-Iles work, Berkeley gets serious about evil and while the narrator chose to call it, not entirely without reason, « sheer bolshevism » one can also be reminded of another country and regime that at the time espoused similar beliefs about the value of life.
The book however doesn’t content itself with « merely » denouncing this or that ideology but pits it against English society and values which are found seriously wanting. The narrator, a living embodiment of middle-class mentality, progressively discovers as he plays amateur sleuth that everything he held true and dear, possibly including his marriage itself, is a sham. Even worse, he is unable to bring the murderer to justice and the book concludes with him plaintively asking what to do about it. Not really the triumphant « mission accomplished » ethos that is often and erroneously associated with the Golden Age detective novel. Order in Not to be Taken can’t be restored since it never existed in the first place; this is a world ripe for cold-blooded killers as there is no one or nothing standing in their way and certainly not « our values ». Such a message at such a time in history cannot be coincidental.
It is interesting to contrast the book’s dark ending with that of Carr’s The Reader is Warned that came out two years later. Having proved to his and the reader’s satisfaction that the seemingly supernatural « Teleforce » is actually everything but, Sir Henry Merrivale goes on to deliver a « Don’t worry, everything will be fine » speech that rings oddly in a book published the same year as a new world war began. Both fans and critics have always emphasized H.M.’s Churchill-like appearance and behaviour but his attitude in this book is closer to Chamberlain’s than Winston’s. Carr at this stage of his career seemed to believe more in the genre’s optimistic, rationalistic ethos than Berkeley did.
Berkeley in his personal life and some of his writing was decidedly not a nice person, but he partly compensated with a rare clear-sightedness, though he rarely applied it to himself. He saw long before others the shortcomings of a certain brand of detective fiction, was a perceptive critic and his worldview while not always a comfortable one was more realistic than most at the time. I don’t know whether Not to be Taken was consciously intended as a warning against totalitarianism and an indictment of « Jolly Old England » but that it allows for such a reading is the mark of an important book by an important writer.