Saturday, November 1, 2014

Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) enjoyed considerable success as a writer of detective novels during the 1920s under the name Anthony Berkeley, one of the best-known of these books being The Poisoned Chocolates Case, published in 1929. In the 30s he would gain a reputation as a major innovator with his psychological crime novels such as Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact written under the name Francis Iles.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is one of the more interesting experiments in detective fiction and is a useful corrective for those who imagine that golden age detective fiction was characterised by rigid adherence to a formula. This book presents us with no less than six detectives who manage to come up with six different solutions to the same murder case.

Roger Sheringham, Berkeley’s main series detective, has finally achieved one of his great ambitions. He has brought into being the Crime Circle, a private club for criminologists. Membership of the circle is very select, being at this stage confined to just six members. Prospective members have to demonstrate their gifts as criminologists and must be accepted by a unanimous vote of the existing members.

Sheringham has now come up with what he conceives as a splendid exercise for the entertainment of the members. He has persuaded Chief Inspector Moresby to give the members a rather full rundown on the current progress of a case currently being investigated by Scotland Yard. The meeting of the Circle will then adjourn for a week to give each member the opportunity to put their criminological knowledge into practice by coming up with their own solution to the crime. Sheringham is confident that his Crime Circle will solve a case that has this far baffled the efforts of Scotland Yard. He also rather naturally hopes that his own solution will be the correct one since he seems to consider  the Crime Circle as existing to a large extent for the glorification of Roger Sheringham.

The crime in question is the murder of Mrs Bendix. Sir Eustace Pennefather, a rather notorious rake, received a box of chocolates through the mail addressed to him at his club. They were ostensibly a sample of a new line of liquer chocolates. Sir Eustace seemed annoyed rather than pleased by this unexpected largesse and gave the chocolates to a fellow member of his club, a wealthy young man named Bendix. Bendix took the chocolates home to his wife, who died after consuming half a dozen or so. Bendix himself, who had eaten only two of the chocolates, became seriously ill but recovered.

Perhaps surprisingly each member of the Crime Circle comes up with a very different solution to the case. Not only does each member point to a different killer, their methods of arriving at their conclusions differ quite sharply. As each member presents his or her solution they first set about systematically demolishing the solution presented by the preceding speaker.

Considered purely as a work of detective fiction this book might perhaps have been more effective had the reader been left in doubt as to the correctness of each member’s solution until the end of the book. My impression is however that Berkeley was not intending to produce a work of detective fiction so much as a satire upon the genre, and assuming this to be the case it is understandable that he would take great pleasure in having his amateur sleuths gleefully trash each other’s theories.

As a satire it is certainly effective, and undeniably very amusing. It also has to be admitted that some of its criticisms of the genre do have some validity, particularly the point that it is very easy for an armchair detective to make a strong case against almost anybody by being selective in the presentation of evidence and ignoring any evidence that would tend to weaken their pet theories.

Whether the book works as a detective novel is more difficult to say. By undermining the credibility of his various fictional detectives he can’t help to some extent also undermining his own credibility since he is presumably subject to the very same faults as they are. Of course when regarded as a satirical novel that factor can be considered as adding extra piquancy to the satire. As a detective novel it relies much too heavily on coincidence, but again if you assume that the book is meant primarily as satire then that was doubtless quite intentional.

My impression of this book is that it displays the same strengths as the Francis lles novels - it’s clever and witty and structurally unconventional. On the other hand it also displays the same flaws - it’s too much in love with its own cleverness and with technique for technique’s sake and the author seems to have considerable contempt for his own characters. 

While Roger Sheringham is exposed as a detective whose chief weakness is that he approaches crime purely as an intellectual game the same accusation could be leveled at Berkeley himself. That may well have been the author’s intention of course.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is certainly a very amusing read although overall it’s a book to be admired for its wit and its technique rather than one to be savoured as a work of detective fiction. Recommended, with reservations.

1 comment:

  1. This one is still on my TBR pile although I have read the short story of the same title. None of the Sheringham's that I've read have been conventionally structured and plotted and Berkeley seems to be mocking the conventions in each of them although they are all truly mysteries and not simple put-downs.