Today’s read is a speedy return to the work of Anthony Berkeley, as last week I reviewed another of his works, Mr Priestley’s Problems (1927). The Piccadilly Murder (1929) features Berkeley’s spasmodic and unusual serial character, Ambrose Chitterwick, who first appears in The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and his final highly memorable appearance is in Trial and Error (1937). In each of these tales, including this one, a different facet is added to his character and it is a pity Berkeley didn’t write more featuring Chitterwick, as I much prefer him, to Roger Sheringham.
The Piccadilly Murder commences with Ambrose Chitterwick taking respite from his overbearing aunt, (who he lives with), by partaking of refreshment in the lounge of the Piccadilly Palace hotel. In true golden age detective fiction style, this is a location where a wide variety of people can easily come into contact and amongst all the hustle and bustle Chitterwick loves to play his favourite game of people watching and making Holmes like surmises about them. Most of his interest is taken up by an old lady, uncomfortable in her surroundings. She is soon joined by a red haired man, who Chitterwick presumes is a relation and they appear to be quarrelling quietly. Chitterwick’s attention is drawn to the man’s hand which hovers over the woman’s cup. However Chitterwick is then called away by a bogus phone call and on his return finds the woman alone, sleeping. Keen to save her embarrassment Chitterwick goes to wake her up, only of course to find she is dead. Initial ideas that she committed suicide with prussic acid are largely dispelled by Chitterwick’s testimony and it seems Chief Inspector Moresby’s task is a very easy one, as the woman’s nephew is found sitting elsewhere in the lounge, a nephew who Chitterwick is sure is the red haired man he saw earlier. Yet we are only a matter of chapters into the book, so the reader is suspicious of how easy the case is to solve and this is vindicated when Chitterwick is tricked into visiting the nephew’s wife, Judy. She and her friends’ appeals ultimately lead to Chitterwick being prepared to look at the case again, aided by Judy and her childhood friend nicknamed Mouse. At first he feels like he is doing this under false pretences, sure that what he saw was right, but as he begins to re-examine the evidence he soon gets different ideas…
Whilst my last Berkeley read was a comic mystery novel, showing what happens when you try to do an elaborate prank, today’s read is a much more conventional detective novel. Chitterwick is a very likable sleuth, whose inability to cope with crying women and other foibles are very endearing and sweet. Again like the sleuth from my previous read (Enter Sir John (1928), Chitterwick is a character with real warmth. In the opening third of the novel Chitterwick’s dynamic with his aunt does have a Bertie Wooster air to it and his aunt entertainingly brings him down to earth after his experiences at the lounge, by deliberately preventing him from telling her what has happened. Equally his temporarily inflated ego after finding himself the star witness in the case is comically punctured in lines such as this:
‘one of the most important men in the country started violently and quickened his pace almost to a run. He had undertaken to be back in Chiswick with the curtain patterns for his aunt by half-past nine.’
The opening third of the novel also has a bit of a Jane Austen feel to it, in its inclusion of dictating elderly relatives, younger relatives keen to obtain their inheritance and not reveal secrets which would jeopardise that – a feature which quite appealed to me.
The puzzle itself is a good one. About two thirds of way into the novel I can imagine most readers will have a fair idea of the who and why of the case. But beware! Berkeley cleverly constructs his puzzle in such a way that you have the right pieces but you don’t give them the correct significance or meaning. Having been deftly fooled by Berkeley, the ending certainly took me by surprise. On the whole I think it is rather a fair play sort of mystery, as the pieces of information Chitterwick uses are at the reader’s disposal. An additional bonus of this book was that in my copy I found an old fashioned looking receipt with notes on the character and remarks on the evidence. Moments like these always seem to vindicate my love of second hand books, as I love how they have their own personal histories as they pass from person to person.
It’s not impossible to get copies of this book, though it will set you back around £30, from what I can see online. However it is a very enjoyable and clever mystery, with a well-made puzzle, which also has highly engaging characters and Berkeley writes about Chitterwick’s investigation in an interesting way. A delight for the seasoned and new reader of Berkeley.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Statue
Martin Edwards on his blog: Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, has also reviewed this title here and was also foxed by the puzzle Berkeley sets.