#182: The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley

berkeley2bthe2bpoisoned2bchocolates2bcaseThe setup of The Poisoned Chocolates Case is rightly very famous: a lady is killed when a box of chocolates given to her husband by another member of his gentlemen’s club — who himself received them unsolicited through the mail — turns out to have been laced with poison.  The police, with no culprit in sight, allow six amateurs with a fascination for real life crimes to theorise and present their own solutions, each one appearing watertight until someone finds a flaw that brings the edifice down.  For this conceit alone, and the genius way Berkeley uses his different sleuths to unpick the sparse and simple known facts, this book has passed into near-legend in detective fiction circles.

It deserves to be famous for more than simply its core idea, though — for reasons no less than the fact that is it superbly written, full of the kind of vim, snark, weightless insight, and effortless thrust-and-parry that shows the detective novel at its very best, as well as the brilliance of the insight Berkeley is bringing in deconstructing a genre which was only just establishing itself (this being coming out before Agatha Christie had enjoyed arguably her finest decade — the 1930s — and before even the greatest proponent of detective fiction ever to take up the craft — c’mon, you know who I mean — had even published a novel).  It is staggeringly ahead of its time in all manner of ways, and in re-reading the new version from the British Library I’ve come to hold it in an even higher regard than I did about 12 years ago when it first (and last) crossed my path.

If you’re expecting the central discussions to revolve around a lot of deliberate and boring examination of minutiae…well, you’re right and wrong.  Yes, there’s a great deal of discussion about the few salient points provided, with much of it focussing on why someone gave a particular piece of information a particular significance, but firstly that’s the exact point the book is making, and secondly it is far from boring.  Berkeley shows himself quite the kapellmeister extraordinaire in how he brings out the foibles of his sleuths and their methods — Roger Sheringham, nominal lead character by dint of being Berkeley’s series sleuth, at one point “turning a hundred words into six” in a pithy rephrasing of a bombastic speech by someone else, or the recitation of a character whose “somewhat laborious sentences, too obviously learned off by heart for the occasion, detracted if anything from the interest of what she has to convey”.  And the opening two paragraphs of chapter 5, capturing the barrister Sir Charles Wildman before he provides the first solution, are simply wonderful.

It’s true that you have to be into your detective fiction to get the most out of this — there’s a fitting meta-examination of how the detective novelist forces particular clewing interpretations on their readers that’ll make your head spin in light of the interpretations we’re then given, and the way motives are imputed to the various suspects in light of real-life cases is an in-joke par excellence — but Berkeley isn’t so impetuous as to exclude anyone who lacks his erudition.  This is as great a place to start running the ziggurat of detective fiction as has yet been written, as it will keep you wise to the tricks these authors used so regularly over the next 30 years (I told you he was ahead of his time…).  There is also, with seven solutions, more than enough going on to prevent one’s attention from waning too much, since almost every line, every implication, counts towards something.

Yes, some obscure stuff remains: precisely what is meant by referring to a character as a “daisy” will be left up to the reader, and a fairly key point of one deduction relies on knowing what it means to be “on the modern side” in one’s schooling, but — as Noah Stewart and I are wont to discuss — if we can cope with shared phone lines or the use of an operator service in our novels of detection, we’re more than up to the task here, too.  It’ll also be up to you whether to club not being open to “all and hungry” is as intended (I looked it up on t’internet and got no hits…), though I was quite delighted to see the defunct “bran-new” retained here — I’ve only ever seen that in this book, and had forgotten it until it cropped up again, so my thanks for the editorial decision to keep it in.  And the description of Acton as “a bleak spot somewhere beyond the bounds of civilisation” will probably only work for those of us who know London, but trust me when I say it’s a perfect summation.

In short, then, this is a delight, a positive gallimaufry of the ingredients that would go on to create the joy of this type of story for many years to come.  From memory I was going in with a very high regard for what Berkeley achieved, but this reintroduction has given me much more to love.

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Noah @ Noah’s Archives: I’ve read this book about five or six times over the years; each time, I think, “Oh, I’ll just skim through it and remind myself why I think it’s so great.” and each time, I find myself savouring it slowly, relishing the fine writing and characterization. I always find some little delightful moment that seems fresh and new … Yes, this book is very much of its period — the attitudes towards divorce and extra-marital affairs, for instance, and the common acceptance that an impoverished peer must marry for money. At the same time if you brought the time period up to date, I think these characters would not seem out of place in the modern day. In short, I think this book is a timeless classic.

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The extra delight of this 2016 British Library Crime Classics version is that it not only includes an additional epilogue written by Christianna Brand for a 1979 reprint, but also an additional additional solution by the Detective Club president and current BLCC consultant Martin Edwards.  Since these form appendices to the text, and precisely how canon they’re taken to be is up to the individual, I thought I’d address them separately.

Brand’s 4-page twist is as sharp and precise as you’d expect, a figurative stiletto between the ribs as two bodies brush past each other in a crowd; not really a new solution per se, but an interesting take on something already provided that casts Berkeley’s ending in a new hue.  It’s a nifty little sting at the end of a tale not exactly lacking in stings itself, and gives one much to think about regarding just how closed the case could be argued to be.

Edwards’ 13-page solution is another answer to the case, with Chief Inspector Moresby roped in to make it official, and even plays on Brand’s own addendum.  Edwards gives him self a lot to do in the space, discussing new information that has come to light, introducing another strand to the web, providing means, motive, and opportunity, and overturning Berkeley’s own final solution.  While I’m not convinced he completely succeeds in the last of these, I have to say that his own solution is rather superb — just as I was starting to mentally unpick it all, he hit me with an absolute belter of a final line that is both clever and very, very brave.  And best of all, he picked as his guilty party the person I was expecting someone else to when I first read this.  And he’s got me thinking that there’s even scope for another solution, so feel free to come knocking if this gets reissued in 20 years…

All told, these additions can’t have the same impact as the novel overall due to their relative brevity, but it would be an exceptionally bull-headed reader who could dismiss them as uninteresting or immaterial.  It’s a real delight to see two such fertile minds apply themselves to extending this most devious of detective puzzles, and full credit to the British Library for these inclusions and Martin Edwards for rising to the challenge so admirably.

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Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: [T]he British Library has re-released it with a couple of extra bits and bobs.  Those bits and bobs come in the shape of two additional solutions to the crime. One is from Christianna Brand, written for a 1979 re-release in the US and now being republished for the first time. It’s a bit of fun, but it doesn’t really add much to the story, more of an embellishment to an existing solution rather than a new one.  The second, and more substantial, extra is from blog-favourite Martin Edwards, who continues the tale from the end of Brand’s contribution, dismissing that ending quickly before adding a new one that carries some emotional heft and brings a new suspect to the table – and also, interestingly, actually confirms their guilt.

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17 thoughts on “#182: The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley

  1. Glad you enjoyed this one JJ, though I didn’t enjoy the Brand solution as much as you did. Didn’t fit in with the characters as I saw them.
    Oh and by the line:
    (this being coming out before Agatha Christie had enjoyed arguably her finest decade — the 1930s — and before even the greatest proponent of detective fiction ever to take up the craft — c’mon, you know who I mean — had even published a novel)
    I’m guessing you meant Ngaio Marsh of course… *runs before gets pelleted with books*.

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  2. Really enjoyed this book, as the book runs wonderfully across the border between a mystery and an anti-mystery, as it keeps denying the possibility of the notion of “a correct solution” constantly (or at least finding it). It’s naturally a theme writers like Berkeley and even Queen played a lot with, but this one is truly a classic.

    I’m rereading Hideo NAKAI’s Kyomu he no Kumotsu (“Offerings to Nothingness”, 1964) coincidentally, which is like Chocolate Case on crack. Here a group of four, five amateur detectives first start theorizing about a potential murder because the circumstances reminds them of a detective novel, and after the first death, not only do they come up with their own theories for that locked room death, they even start theorizing about a potentional second, third murder, how it would be committed and who the murderer would be in that case. It’s like several Chocolate Cases after another.

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  3. My complaint against the book is that so many solutions are possible, any of which can be taken as true with minor modifications. In fact, one of the false solutions of the novel is the true solution in the short story from which it.is adapted. Hence it can’t be treated as a fair play mystery..Brand has a solution. Edwards has a solution. I also can give a solution ! 🙂

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    • It’s true that evidence has to be introduced as part of each solution while it’s being given, but I’m with Ho-Ling on this just being a clever examination of a ‘correct’ conclusion ever being reached (though Berkeley arguably resolves it to his own satisfaction come the end). As a piece of almost speculative detective fiction it’s amazingly progressive — there are ideas in this that outstrip many of the bigger names working in the genre today, and you can’t say that about too many books from 87 years ago!

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  4. You’ve already linked to pretty much everything I had to say about this book, for which thank you, and I agree with your comments as well. (Is this what they call log-rolling? LOL) Whenever anyone asks what my favourite mystery novel is, this one certainly comes to mind. There is a spirit of playfulness here, sheer ludic delight in ratiocination, that is above and beyond any other mystery I can think of.

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    • Yeah, I was wondering how this would hold up given that I’ve read a great deal more detective fiction now than I had when I first encountered it, and it’s testament to how good a job Berkeley has done that I came away liking it even more than before — it not only anticipates so much about the genre, it does it without being pompous or dismissive. It’s almost his own Decalogue in that respect (a Heptalogue?) — seven solutions that cover the gamut of considerations for detective fiction, but without the dryness or lecturing that van Dine and Knox (particularly van Dine) invariably fell into.

      I’d even go so far as to say now that when my favourite ten detecive novels is actually a list with only ten books on it this would now be in there. So there are now eight spots left to be definitely fixed…

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  5. I very much enjoyed this novel, and still think it’s the best Berkeley title I’ve read so far – though I’ve yet to read ‘Trial and Error’ and ‘Jumping Jenny’. I was able to guess the ending, but I still considered it one of my top reads two years ago. I particularly enjoyed the way the novel simultaneously upholding and subverting the cherished conventions of fair-play mystery writing, especially in terms of clues.

    Anyway, I’m excited to see what novel you will be reviewing next. Have you started on it? Is it any good??? I’m thinking of reading it before deciding on whether or not it would be a suitable birthday gift for a friend… 😀

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  6. I re-read this about six months ago, before the BL edition cane out, but I bought this new one for the two new solutions and because . . . well, something so fine deserves to be owned! Yes, it plays with the conventions at the same time that each solution builds in glamor to the final shattering end. I find it interesting that Berkeley didn’t feel his short story solution measured up to what he wanted to accomplish. If ever there was an author I would like to discuss a novel with, this is one!

    A few more thoughts:

    Ho-Ling MUST translate that novel he described above! Get to it, man!

    I know your pen slipped when you made that mistake about Christie and the 1930’s. You meant to say ” . . . before she had enjoyed her finest SCORE of years, the 1930s and the 1940s.” Oh, and she hadn’t even written After the Funeral yet . . .

    I don’t know the other author you meant. Been wracking my brains and can’t think of another writer of this stature . . . but I’m THRILLED that you share my love and respect for James Patterson and the finely plotted and written exploits of Alex Cross and his beloved Nana Mama, all told in 210 short chapters, each with a cliffhanger ending and some damn fine sleuthing. Now THERE’S a prolific author for the ages!

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  7. You have me enticed enough that I’ll definitely be picking up this book.

    How would you rate the strength of the multiple solutions? I loved the multiple solution premise of Case for Three Detectives, but found the initial three solutions a little lacking compared to what I had hoped for.

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    • I’m sorry, what? You didn’t like the three false solutions in Case for Three Detectives? This…this has never happened before, I’m…confused. It’s almost as if you’re saying there’s…well…something wrong with that book. And you can’t mean that, surely. We’re talking about Case for Three Detectices by Leo Bruce, right? Clearly you must have read some sort of, I dunno, knockoff version by some self-published author who has accidentaly used the title of that classic in peddling their own inept crap on an unsuspecting world. Because there’s just no way that you didn’t enjoy the Bruce version. Right? 😛

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      • Ha, I did enjoy the book overall – especially the true solution. I wouldn’t say that I disliked the false solutions, I just found them to be a bit… similar. It was interesting to see Bruce provide three different motives, techniques, and culprits for the same crime – it’s just that the techniques were all in the same vein.

        Contrast that with The Crooked Hinge – Carr provides three (or two and a half) solutions, all of which are distinctly different from each other.

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  8. Pingback: #189: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Back to the Beginning with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) | The Invisible Event

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