The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

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Reviewed by Harriet

In the pantheon of detective fiction there is nothing quite like it.

So writes Martin Edwards in his introduction to the British Library’s new edition of this famous novel by the celebrated golden-age writer Anthony Berkeley (1893-1971). First published in 1929, the novel features a small circle of six people who form what is known as the Crime Club – the fictional forerunner of the real life Detection Club of which Berkeley was a founder member. A woman of their acquaintance, Joan Bendix, has died after eating some chocolates which turned out to be poisoned, and the president of the club, amateur detective Roger Sheringham, suggests that each of the members should attempt to come up with a solution to the murder. This in indeed what happens in the remainder of the novel: solution after solution is suggested – in every instance, backed up with references to real-life murder cases – discussed and finally debunked by the other members.

There’s everything to enjoy about this clever, witty novel. The action takes place over a series of evening meetings spread over several weeks, each attended by the six members:

There was a famous lawyer, a scarcely less famous woman dramatist, a brilliant novelist who ought to have been more famous than she was, the most intelligent (if not the most amiable) of living detective-story writers, Roger Sheringham himself, and Mr Ambrose Chitterwick, who was not famous at all.

Each of them has some familiarity with the case and with the people involved, and they are allowed access to the facts already gathered by Scotland Yard: they may use these inductively, or if they wish they may plunge into actual detection work, going out and making fresh inquiries of their own. The facts of the case are both simple and devilishly complicated. Roger Bendix, the husband of the victim, had gone into his club on a weekday morning and encountered Sir Eustace Pennyfather, a baronet of somewhat dubious character. Sir Eustace had been in the act of opening his mail, among which was a parcel proving to contain a box of chocolates, with a covering letter asking him to accept them as a free gift from the manufacturers. As he very much disliked chocolates, and as Roger had promised his wife a box as a reward for winning a bet, Sir Eustace gave the chocolates to Roger who had passed them on to Joan. The two of them had sampled them and Roger, who had only eaten two, had become quite unwell but had recovered. Joan, who had eaten many more, had died.

The amateur detectives throw themselves in with enthusiasm, each presenting a case that is ingenious and at first sight very convincing. The perpetrators are different in each case, of course, ranging from Sir Eustace to Roger and other minor players. But every time a solution is presented, the other members of the club find flaws in it and it is dashed to the ground. In fact, there is no final solution, unless the reader chooses to accept one of the ones put forward by the members themselves.

Anthony Berkeley obviously had a lot of fun with this novel, which manages both to entertain and to explode readers’ expectations of what a detective novel ‘ought’ to do. Also, of course, as Martin Edwards points out in the introduction, Berkeley ‘blows the gaff on the classic detective story’:

His focus here was not to shed light on the psychology of his characters, but to expose the limitations of the games that detective novelists play with their readers, whilst using humour to ensure that the result remained entertaining to read.

To add to the spirit of fun which is at the heart of this book, the new British Library edition contains two further suggested solutions to the crime. The first is by the American novelist Christianna Brand who, in 1979, wrote a further denouement for an American hardback edition of the book. Finally, Martin Edwards, who is of course a well-known crime novelist and theorist when he’s not editing these editions for the British Library, has written his own wholly new solution to the crime.

Anthony Berkeley was a hugely important figure in crime writing in the mid-20th century. In addition to a number of novels written under his own name, he also took a pseudonym, Francis Iles, under which he wrote two of the most stunning and ground-breaking psychological novels, Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact (filmed by Hitchcock as Suspicion, with an altered ending which made nonsense of the very dark story).  Hopefully the British Library will bring more of his important work into the light of day before too long.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Anthony Berkeley, The Poisoned Chocolates Case (British Library, 2016). 978-0712356534, 268pp., paperback original.

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