The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley

Source: Review Copy (British Library)

the-poisoned-chocolates-case

This year I have reread quite a few mysteries, but today’s reread is one with a difference, well two differences really, that of including two additional chapters – one written in 1979 by Christianna Brand and the other by Martin Edwards. With this story’s plot two extra chapters has quite a significant impact and I was eager to read them. In the introduction to the British Library reprint, Martin summarises well that ‘Berkeley blows the gaff on the class detective story… expos[ing] the limitations of the games that detective novelists play with their readers.’ Martin also astutely points out the less than conventional ending, with its ‘note of uncertainty that is at odds with the conventional view that the appeal of the classic detective story lies in fact that, at the end, order is restored.’ Sleuth fallibility is a trope Berkeley featured a lot in his work, but it is safe to say that he takes it to a whole new level in this work, which revolves around the members of the Crimes Circle taking on the challenge of independently working towards a solution for a recent unsolved murder case. The president of this group is Roger Sheringham’s serial sleuth. The other members comprise a Sir Charles Wildman who is successful barrister, a high brow novelist named Alice Dammers, the playwright Mable Fielder-Flemming, a detective fiction writer whose penname is Morton Harrogate Bradley and Ambrose Chitterwick. Each member has one week within which to gather data for their solution to the death of Joan Bendix and the following week each evening a different member will propose their solution and the other members will see if they can discredit it.

The case in question begins with an infamous womaniser, Sir Eustace Pennefather receiving a box of chocolates at his club, supposedly sent from a chocolate manufacturer wanting his opinion on a new range. Annoyed at their audacity, he offers them to Graham Bendix, who says he needs to procure some chocolates for his wife, since she won a bet they had concerning the guessing of a culprit in a theatre mystery play. As you may have already surmised, the chocolates are poisoned and having eaten far more than her husband, Joan dies. Is this an unfortunate accident? Or is there something more sinister afoot? One thing you won’t be short of in this story is solutions, which commence from chapter 5, which I think highlights the focus this novel has and credit is due to Berkeley for making the unfolding of solution after solution an enjoyable and entertaining read. Dammers says early on to one of the others who is giving their theory to ‘keep away from the detective-story atmosphere,’ not believing they should ‘mystify each other.’ Thankfully neither the character speaking nor Berkeley follows this suggestion and the reader as well as the Crimes Circle members undergo a great deal of mystification during the course of the story.

Again it is definitely to Berkeley’s credit that he created an initial mystery in the first place which is open to so many different solutions that are not only highly divergent but are also reasonably plausible when first listened to, before other group members pick holes in them. The crime itself is also interesting in that it can be read in different ways depending on which real life case the character chooses. An important point which is also brought out by the series of solutions is that the solutions are reflective of the people who made them, a factor I had not given much thought to, but it is interesting to consider the extent to which individual attitudes and biases affect such matters.

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I would also suggest that as well as these solutions reflecting individuals’ personalities, the whole story also reflects parts of Berkeley’s own character, something I think I only saw on this reread due to having read Martin’s excellent work, The Golden Age of Murder (2015). It would be fair to say that Berkeley had a fraught relationship with women, dedicating two of his novels written as Frances Iles, which feature wives who are murdered by their husbands, to his wives. At the start of the story, the Bendixes are said to have ‘succeeded in achieving that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage.’ Yet I don’t think it would surprise anyone that this notion does not withstand the solutions brought by the Crimes Circle members. I think Berkeley’s dark humour is also present in the story especially in the scene when Joan Bendix is eating the chocolates, where she notes how they burn her mouth and give her a numb and tingling tongue, yet continues eating them trying to ascertain whether she likes them or not. Though to be fair to Berkeley male characters are also shown in less than brilliant colours and are subject to disconcerting and uncomfortable moments, Sheringham included. Finally Berkeley’s original ending is also quite in keeping with the writer himself in my opinion.

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Despite it being another year until The Detection Club, of which Berkeley was a part of, began, I’d say he has recreated the atmosphere brilliantly. Berkeley knows how to write about writers and how to create humorous group dynamics revolving around their competitiveness with each other. In particular I thought it was good that Berkeley allowed us to see how the group members viewed each other and their theories. Sheringham’s reactions in particular arguably mirror the readers’ to an extent at one point, when he moves rapidly from being beguiled by the speaker’s persuasiveness to having swung ‘round… in reaction to the other extreme.’ One of the funniest moments for me is when Sir Wildman’s theory is being pulled apart and Bradley says: ‘You seem to be putting the odds at somewhere round about a million to one. I should put them at six to one. Permutations and combinations you know.’ To which Wildman’s replies, ‘Damn your permutations… And your combinations too.’ And for those with a cursory understanding of clothing terms will be able to predict Bradley’s retort…‘Mr Chairman, is it within the rules of this club for one member to insult another member’s underwear? Besides Sir Charles… I don’t wear the things. Never have done, since I was an infant.’ (N.B. The double entendre in question centres round the dual meaning of the word combinations.)

So what about the extra chapters? Beginning with Brand’s chapter I felt that although the solution proposed is clever, I didn’t think the character psychology ran true and consequently it felt a bit dissatisfying. Conversely though Martin’s new ending was infinitely better, despite the immensity of the task. His ending reminds me very strongly of…

SPOILER

 

Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives (1936) and in doing so brings the story pleasingly back full circle.

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SPOILER ENDS

Martin’s writing style also meshes more effectively with Berkeley’s original story than Brand’s does. His ending is also interesting in that it perhaps gives the story a more closed ending in comparison to Berkeley’s more open one. It would be fascinating to find out more about the decisions that went into this ending, given the writing context.

Overall I find this is a story which plays around with reader expectations, frequently overturning them, but in a way which is pleasing to the reader. The way each solution seems to be overturned one after another has an impressive effect and makes you wonder if you will ever trust a solution given in a mystery novel ever again, especially considering the different types of proofs which are dismantled and how when the group members critique each other’s solutions they often highlight the tricks crime writers use to make their solutions seem more convincing than they actually might be. Berkeley’s humour has many different hues and aside from the examples I have mentioned, I also enjoyed how he undercuts contrived tension. I definitely enjoyed this story more this time round than I did when I first read it. The bonus chapters contributed to this of course but I also think I appreciated the original text much more as well, in terms of its character interactions and humour.

Rating: 4.5/5

P.S Ironically rather in the mood for some chocolate now.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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14 Responses to The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley

  1. TomCat says:

    I was unaware this edition from the British Library has two additional chapters, but a smart move considering the book was reprinted in 2010 by both Felony & Mayhem and the Langtail Press. One of them appears to be still in print. So these new chapters are a good excuse to place the book back on my wishlist.

    What I remember best about my reading (some years ago now) is how disappointed I was when Sheringham began to rattle off my clever solution… halfway through the book! Evidently, we were both very, very wrong.

    At the time, I really admired the book for being a pure detective story, even if it was meant to showcase its fallibility, but later discovered Berkeley played the same game in a far superior manner in Jumping Jenny, which had a better plot, characters and storytelling – as well as Sheringham at his most fallible. Poor Roger!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never read Jumping Jenny but sounds like good read. Shame there aren’t any reasonably priced copies available. Hopefully someone like the BL will reprint it at some point. I do like how Berkeley doesn’t give his series sleuth special treatment as he really does take quite a hammering for his own theory – which is the one I remembered the best from the first time I read it.

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  2. Brad says:

    Kind of regretting I just reread this six months ago and, like you, enjoyed it even more the second time around! I think I will buy it for Martin’s intro and the two new characters endings. And I’ll check my library because they have a lot of Berkeley and if Jumping Jenny is better I’d like to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Got library envy now. Don’t suppose you could take the book out on an extra long loan and post it to me? Maybe not, don’t want you getting banned or something. The extra chapters and the intro definitely make this reprint a worthwhile purchase though – not often they get new material with a reprint.

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  3. JFW says:

    I just finished the British Library reprint early last week, and so I have been looking forward to your review. 🙂 I liked Martin Edwards’s proposed solution, and it reminded me of Ellery Queen’s ‘French Powder Mystery’. I actually liked Christianna Brand’s proposed solution too, as I thought it made the reader do a double take, especially in tandem with Berkeley’s final chapter. I thought it could fit with Berkeley’s original characterisation as well.

    Apart from Berkeley’s “inverted” mysteries written under Frances Iles, I only have ‘Jumping Jenny’ left. 😦 Though I might pick up ‘Silk Stocking Murders’ when it is re-released next year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Having read two of Berkeley’s Iles novels I’d definitely recommend them, especially Malice Aforethought. The ending is brilliant. There’s still a few Berkeley novels I haven’t read but that is invariably due to their lack of availability. Though I think I’d like to do some rereading of his work as well as I think I might appreciate him more a second time round. Looking at my good reads rating for SSM I really didn’t seem to like it (2/5 stars), but for the life of me I can’t remember why. So I may need to reread this one to see if this rating is actually accurate and not just me pressing the wrong number of stars in a post reading daze.

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  4. JJ says:

    I, like just about everyone else, am extremely curious to see what Martin Edwards has done with his new ending, and the inclusion of the Brand chapter is a wonderful touch…I’ve not read that, so this is definitely in the upper echelons of my TBB; glad it’s a good read still — been several years since I picked it up, and there’s every chance my memory was playing tricks on me…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I this is one of the reasons why I like blogging, it helps me to remember what I read, as there are quite a number of books I read 3 or so years ago and I just can’t remember much about them at all, even when I loved them.

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  5. poseidons99 says:

    Maybe similarly as about the personalities, sometimes it can bite back when you try to fit the evidence to the story and not the other way around

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