The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
I’ve often thought how rubbish I’d be on a jury, as whenever I’ve watched fictional court scenes I’ve been swayed back and forth by the arguments of the opposing counsels until I don’t know who to believe. And I’m even more convinced having read Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”, a recent addition to the very wonderful British Library Crime Classics series.
Berkeley is a most unjustly neglected author, as my experiences of reading his work have been wonderful. Under this pseudonym (his real one was Anthony Berkeley Cox) he created the detective Roger Sheringham, a most entertaining sleuth. Another nom de plume was Francis Iles, and under this one he produced the very highly regarded “Malice Aforethought”. Iles was later reinvented as a critic; this book, however, is his most famous one as Berkeley, and it’s really very special – certainly one of the BL titles I was most keen to read.
As usual, the book features an excellent introduction by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, giving an outline of Berkeley’s career. And the story itself is a fascinating read, and a most unusual one. Roger Sheringham has set up a Crimes Circle, a group of notables with an interest in crime and criminals – and most obviously this is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Detection Club, which Berkeley was instrumental in forming. There is the famous barrister Sir Charles Wildman; dramatist Miss Fielder-Flemming; novelist Alicia Dammers; crime fiction author Morton Harrogate Bradley; and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, a diffident man about whom little is said.. On the evening in question, as the book opens, they are joined by Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, a friend of Sheringham, as the latter, being the Circle’s president, has a proposal to put to the members.
A murder has taken place, that of Joan Bendix, who’s been poisoned by a doctored box of chocolates. The twist is that the sweets in question had been sent to one Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, purporting to be a free sample from the company that produces them. Pennefather dismisses the promotional stunt angrily; and as Graham Bendix, who happens to be nearby, mentions that he owes his wife Joan a box of chocolates after losing a bet, Pennefather gladly hands them on to him. The chocolates are duly delivered to Mrs. Bendix, who reports that they taste rather unpleasant; Graham Bendix tries a couple and agrees, and so when the poison takes hold it only makes him ill as he ate so few; for Joan Bendix, who ate a good number, it proves fatal.
This is the pretty and knotty problem facing the Crime Circle; who tried to kill Sir Eustace and why? There are few clues, as the box was posted on evening in the middle of London, and there are no fingerprints on the wrapping or anything else to give a hint as to the killer. Scotland Yard are baffled and so Roger Sheringham proposes that each member does a little sleuthing, presenting their findings at later meetings to see if the amateurs can outdo the professionals. Of course, Sheringham himself wants to be the one who finds the solution and we do see some of the detecting from his point of view.
So the various members go off to do their investigating; and what’s fascinating is how each turns out to have some individual knowledge of the people involved in the murder. Sir Charles, for example, has a hatred of Pennefather, who is revealed to be something of a womanizer and who’s been chasing his daughter with a view to marriage for money. Several members know the Bendixes, and reports of the temperament of Joan, the happiness or not of their marriage and each partner’s peccadilloes vary. As I read on, each subsequent explanation was totally convincing, proving how easy it is to twist facts to meet theories – I ended up really not knowing who was the guilty party! It’s a tribute to Berkeley’s skill as an author that each individual explanation has a completely different angle and interpretation of the characters and events, and that each is utterly believable.
Facts were very dear to Sir Charles. More, they were meat and drink to him. His income of roughly thirty thousand pounds a year was derived entirely from the masterful way in which he was able to handle facts. There was no one at the bar who could so convincingly distort an honest but awkward fact into carrying an entirely different interpretation from that which any ordinary person (counsel for the prosecution, for instance) would have put upon it. He could take that fact, look it boldly in the face, twist it round, read a message from the back of its neck, turn it inside out and detect auguries in its entrails, dance triumphantly on its corpse, pulverise it completely, re-mould it if necessary into an utterly different shape, and finally, if the fact still had the temerity to retain any vestige of its primary aspect, bellow at it in the most terrifying manner. If that failed he was quite prepared to weep at it in open court.
This book really could be described as post-modern in that it actually deconstructs many of the tropes and conventions of detective stories. The Circle members are quite happy to discuss the tricks that authors use to bamboozle the reader, and how easy it is to draw erroneous conclusions and make a convincing argument for almost anyone being the murderer! Berkeley playfully pokes fun at the genre, but always in an affectionate way and this doesn’t interfere with the joy of following the mystery and the deduction; it’s also very funny! And the book finishes in a wonderfully open-ended way, with the reader pretty much free to agree with any of the conclusions reached or none of them.
“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” comes with some excellent extras in the form of an additional chapter with a solution by noted author Christianna Brand, first published in 1977; and a rather wonderful subsequent one by Martin Edwards, written especially for this edition. I didn’t think Brand’s piece gelled particularly well, but that by Edwards was just wonderful. He captures brilliantly Berkeley’s style and his solution is ingenious and believable with a marvellous twist on the last page – so make sure you don’t read that by mistake!
I have to say that the British Library Crime Classics are one of the joys of the modern publishing world; I love Golden Age crime anyway, and reading these rediscovered classics is such a pleasure. “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” is definitely going to be up there among my favourites of genre; it’s perfect reading for those who just want a brilliant Golden Age read, or for those who want something that delves a little into the whole business of classic crime writing. Highly recommended!
(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)