The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

The Poisoned Chocolates Case,  by Anthony Boucher (1929)

1946070Author: Anthony Berkeley was the pen name of Anthony Berkeley Cox, an extremely talented and inventive mystery writer who also wrote as Francis Iles and other names. His biography in Wikipedia is found here; I have elsewhere reviewed his first novel, The Layton Court Mystery, originally published as by “?”. Yes, a question mark. His novel as by Francis Iles, Before the Fact, was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1941 as Suspicion, with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. He was one of the founding members of the Detection Club. His principal detective as Berkeley is Roger Sheringham, silly-ass amateur detective, but a couple of novels feature Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, mild-mannered criminology expert; this is the only novel to feature both.

thPublication Data: The first edition of this novel is probably the Collins (UK) edition from 1929 (the jacket features Mrs. Bendix in a low-cut evening gown); I am unable to say reliably whether it predates the Doubleday Crime Club edition of 1929. The first paperback edition is Penguin #36, dating from 1936, originally published with a dust wrapper; you may find it significant that it predates the first paperback published in North America by three years. In other words, one of the first paperbacks ever.

I like the look of Pocket 814, which you’ll see elsewhere in this post, featuring Mrs. Bendix in a low-cut evening gown (do you sense a theme?). This novel was also part of an edition from Dell in the 1980s that I call “puzzlebacks”; the books have the uniform feature of a jigsaw piece on the front, and you see on the back cover where the piece fits into an illustration from the novel. That’s the copy I’ve used for this post.

It is a reworking of a short story published earlier* the same year called “The Avenging Chance” — the solution of the short story is actually one of the solutions that is presented and discarded in the novel form (see below for an explanation of this). (*See a discussion in the comments below.)

This particular book was selected as a Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone, which is to say that Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen thought it was one of the most important works of detective fiction ever published. I agree wholeheartedly. In my personal opinion, it is one of the finest murder mysteries of all time.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

I believe this book to be sufficiently significant in the history of detective fiction that I have decided to spoil your potential enjoyment as little as possible. Nevertheless, if you want to have a delightful experience, I advise you to turn away now, go find a copy of this book and read it before you return.

24044PThis book is about a group of six amateur detectives who call themselves the Crimes Circle. As a discussion topic, they decide to investigate a crime which is familiar to all of them, and some of them have personal connections to various of the dramatis personae. Each detective agrees to investigate the case and provide a solution; one by one, week after week, each presents his or her ideas and conclusions. By the time of the sixth such presentation, it becomes absolutely clear who is responsible for the crime.

The case they investigate involves a box of liqueur chocolates which was received through the post by the universally loathed Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, with a letter asking for his endorsement as a kind of advertisement that was common at the time. Sir Eustace is both disagreeable and hot-tempered and announces that he’s going to throw the chocolates away, but a fellow club member, Graham Bendix, asks for them because he has lost a bet with his wife Joan and needs to produce a box of chocolates to pay the forfeit. Bendix takes them home; he eats a couple and Joan eats quite a few more. The chocolates have been poisoned with nitrobenzene; Graham Bendix recovers, but his wife dies.

The six members of the Crimes Circle are as follows (and their solutions are presented in this order):

  • Sir Charles Wildman, well-known bombastic defense lawyer; we later learn that Sir Charles’s daughter means to marry Sir Eustace as soon as his divorce becomes final.
  • Mrs. Fielder-Flemming, a playwright whose work focuses on emotions more than facts; some of her dramatic productions have been thinly-disguised retellings of famous murder cases.
  • Morton Harrogate Bradley, a writer of detective novels who has considerable knowledge of criminology in the abstract, but who is perhaps not very serious about its concrete details.
  • Roger Sheringham, amateur detective and man about town, who has solved other murder mysteries in the recent past (chronicled by Anthony Berkeley).
  • Alicia Dammers, an icy and beautiful novelist whose brilliance is universally acknowledged. She writes novels that dissect in unflattering and cold-eyed logical detail the failings of others.
  • Ambrose Chitterwick, a mild-mannered gentleman who nevertheless appears to know an enormous amount about the history of detective fiction and true crime.

anthony-berkeleyEach detective does whatever investigation he or she feels is appropriate and makes a case. Week after week, the opinions of the group are swayed in one direction or another. Although there are really only three principal characters, various other possibilities are considered. At first, everyone is considering the possible reasons for someone to try to kill Sir Eustace, who is very disagreeable, a well-known womanizer, and looking to marry into money; no one could have known that he would pass the chocolates to Mr. Bendix, whom he hardly knew. As time goes by, the possibility is considered that Mr. Bendix has taken the opportunity to murder his wife and throw suspicion on an unknown enemy of Sir Eustace. Some detectives focus upon psychology and some upon physical clues, and the way in which these clues are investigated is gone into in exhaustive detail. As one investigator remarks, even so small a detail as access to the model of typewriter upon which the letter accompanying the chocolates has been typed, or potential access to the letterhead of the chocolate company, is considered indicative of the guilt or innocence of a number of different people.

Week after week, solutions are presented that are, to a greater or lesser degree, believable. One early solution accuses another member of the group; so does the next presentation, although the reader may not feel that a detective who accuses himself is entirely serious. Roger Sheringham’s detailed and intelligent solution is considered quite definitive, but then Miss Dammers presents a different and brilliant solution that seems completely conclusive … so much so that everyone almost forgets that little Mr. Chitterwick has yet to present. However, he takes his turn and, to the astonishment of the group, comes up with a sixth solution to the crime that is both unexpected and absolutely correct.

the-poisoned-chocolates-caseWhy is this book worth your time?

Simply put, this is an absolutely key volume of detective fiction. Anthony Berkeley was a crucial figure in the history of the Detection Club and thus in detective fiction; he wrote some magnificent novels that are still read and enjoyed today. He is pretty much responsible for the invention of the “open mystery” (Malice Aforethought from 1931). And this volume is a puzzle mystery that combines a strong vein of humour with some superb detection. Ellery Queen and Howard Haycraft selected it as a “Queen Cornerstone” and I wholeheartedly agree. This is an amazingly clever work of detective fiction that dazzles in the same way as a Catherine-wheel of fireworks; brilliance piled upon brilliance and building to a completely unexpected solution that nevertheless is completely, wholly right. You may actually gasp aloud.

Occasionally, commentators mention Rashomon in connection with this volume, because of how we see the same set of events interpreted by six different viewpoints. The brilliance of this interpretation is that Berkeley has given us six different styles of detection that could have been produced by fellow members of the Detection Club, each of whom has his or her own modality of detective work. Mrs. Fielder-Flemming is perhaps the most wildly emotional — she is the kind of person who “feels” guilt rather than thinks it, while Miss Dammers’s approach is coldly logical about the emotions of others. Roger Sheringham focuses on clues and their meaning; so does Morton Harrogate Bradley, although his approach is more haphazard and amateurish. Sir Charles Wildman takes the legal approach; decide who is guilty and focus your argument to indicate that all the evidence and interpretation leads to the inevitable choice of murderer.  And finally Mr. Chitterwick admits that he has had the benefit of hearing five other interpretations of the situation and has had to only select from bits and pieces of theory in order to build his case; his success lies in his brilliance in sorting theories and facts and not restricting himself in his assessment of responsibility.

poisoned_chocolates2There is also some beautiful and elegant writing here for your delectation. In a way, each detective’s presentation takes on the flavour of that detective’s personality. Sir Charles relies upon bombast, Mrs. Fielder-Flemming emotional speechmaking, and Miss Dammers’s style is the icy dissection of someone who understands emotions but apparently does not experience them. Mr. Bradley’s scattered and diffuse detection approach is the most humorous, probably because he’s the most self-deprecating; and Roger Sheringham’s inner sense of his own intellectual superiority shines through his entire approach and solution. Even Mr. Chitterwick, whose personality is pretty much defined by his not having one, is beautifully portrayed; he has nothing to offer except being perfectly correct. Each presentation has the flavour of its presenter, in the choice of language and description. And each presenter selects a murderer that, in a way, is indicative of his or her personality.

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 (this time through, I was amused by Mr. Bradley’s description of his household’s focus on “paper games” which explain why he has a wad of stolen stationery). 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.

As I noted above in my “spoiler alert”, if you haven’t yet read this magnificent work, throw your “to be read” pile into the corner and get a copy of this book immediately.  Yes, it’s that good.

7de361267eb67b548f28ba616fc35198Notes for the Collector:

The first edition appears to be from Collins, 1929; the first US edition is Doubleday (Crime Club), 1929. An American bookseller has an “exceptional” copy of the US first of this Haycraft-Queen cornerstone for $1,250 as of this date. I could be mistaken; the British 1st is also 1929, as far as I know. An Oxonian bookseller has a signed copy of the 1930 Collins edition, second printing, no jacket, for  $500. I don’t see any copies of the British 1st available for sale as of today.

I must admit I gravitate towards signed copies and feel they hold their value, but of the number of editions available today, perhaps the most interesting to the collector should be the first paper; Penguin greenback #36 from 1936.  This paperback’s original state has it with a dust wrapper or jacket, apparently identical in design. You can have a copy of this for $150, Near Fine in a VG+ wrapper. Note that this is one of the earliest crime titles in Penguin, the first Berkeley title in Penguin and, to give this some context, was published three years before the first paperback published in North America. Not very beautiful, except to those of us who appreciate the austere simplicity of the Penguin greenback, but definitely a significant edition of this significant novel.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1929 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “O”, “Read one one book with a method of murder in the title.” The victim is dispatched with, of course, poisoned chocolates. I am delighted to note that, as my twentieth review in this group, this now completes my first Bingo — the fifth line from the top. I hope to achieve a couple more before the end of the calendar year. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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The Layton Court Mystery, by Anthony Berkeley (1925)

The Layton Court Mystery, by Anthony Berkeley (1925)

imageAuthor:

Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote under a number of names but Anthony Berkeley might be the best known; admittedly he wrote a couple of wonderful novels as Frances Iles, notably Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Suspicion.  Indeed, he pretty much invented the “inverted mystery” as Frances Iles. As Anthony Berkeley, though, he chronicled the adventures of yet another Silly Ass detective named Roger Sheringham, whose first adventure this is.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “L”, “Read one country house mystery.” The titular house is the scene of the crime and almost all the action of this novel. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

41kAX3MKbBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Publication Data:

The publication history of this novel is quite interesting. Its first publication was as by ? — yes, Berkeley published two early novels as by a question mark. (Examine the green volume to the left carefully.) Perhaps this was some sort of publicity idea whose concept is beyond my understanding. Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been for librarians, who had to figure out how to shelve these? Anyway, it was next published in the U.S. in 1929 as by Anthony Berkeley, and it has remained thus ever since.

I found the publication history particularly interesting because it includes the edition from which I wrote this post: it was electronic and found here. My practice is to show the cover of the book I used, and it is at the head of this post; it’s also at the head of the page containing the novel. I have to say, this was my first on-line book. It was an interesting experience. I have an e-reader but have found that not much of a decent antiquity is available for reading in those formats; I expect that will change as the copyright freedom date creeps slowly forward.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

228

Roger Sheringham is your basic wealthy upper-class British nitwit who talks a great deal of piffle, as Maggie Smith once put it, and is staying at a country house when his host, wealthy Victor Stanhope, is found dead in the final sentences of chapter two, shot through the forehead in the library at his country house, Layton Court. And all the doors and windows are locked from the inside.

Victor is a bachelor whose widowed sister-in-law, Lady Stanhope, keeps house for him. He has a secretary, Major Jefferson, and a chauffeur who used to be a boxer. Other than the usual household full of servants, Victor enjoys a house full of guests, it seems. Lady Stanhope’s friend Mrs. Shannon has brought her daughter Barbara, and Mrs. Plant is a beautiful young woman whose husband is in the Soudanese Civil Service.  Barbara, as our story begins, becomes unaffianced to the handsome young athlete Alec Grierson, who has been asked to the house to keep Barbara entertained; Alec has brought his friend, aforementioned silly ass author Roger Sheringham.

In the pages that lead up to the discovery of the actual murderer on page 291, certainly there is a great deal of piffle proffered for the amusement of the reader. Alec quickly takes on the role of Watson to Sheringham’s Sherlock Holmes, a combination acknowledged specifically by both of them, and Sheringham soon begins to speak in great gusts of rolling sentences, almost like a detective stream of consciousness. He has ideas about everything, he pokes his nose into everything, and he soon begins to learn that very nearly nothing in the house is what it seemed upon the surface.

He is helped along in this by the police, who seem relatively uninterested in further investigation. After all, the man was found clutching the gun that killed him, with a kind of suicide note in front of him, and all the doors and windows of the room locked from the inside.

Of course, all the house’s inhabitants immediately start acting guilty as hell, one by one. One by one, so that each person can be interviewed in a chapter that provides a piece of information that takes us to the next chapter. There are occasional false starts and false trails. At one point, the principal characters spend a couple of chapters chasing down the lead of a name which, to everyone except the dim-witted detective and his even dimmer-witted assistant, it is obvious is that of an animal. We soon learn how to lock a certain kind of window from the outside so that it looks like it’s been locked from the inside, disposing of the locked-room problem. Suspicions shift from one house guest to the next, but each time something is learned that pretty much eliminates the individual from further consideration.

Finally, Roger Sheringham works out whodunnit. If you are anything like me, the identity of the murderer will have been screamingly, patently obvious from about page 100, but given the fact that the puzzle mystery was at the time in its complete infancy, the contemporaneous reader will have been gobsmacked to realize that his morally upright assistant, Alec, is the killer. The book ties off its loose ends and closes.

211Why is this book worth your time?

One thing it’s important to note at the outset is that this book was published in 1925. In 1925, to give you some context, Agatha Christie had published five novels and was probably working on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for publication next year. Chesterton had only published two small volumes of Father Brown stories more than ten years previously. Philo Vance showed up a year later; Ellery Queen’s debut was four years in the future; Raymond Chandler’s debut novel was 14 years away. Movies were silent and the publishing industry was much more active, and considerably different, than it was today. And the Golden Age of mysteries was in its earliest period.

Specifically, John Dickson Carr was five years into the future and the locked room mystery was in its infancy — which is one of the reasons why this book is so interesting, because its clever author was making things up as he went along and yet influenced an entire genre. Yes, it was absolutely bold-facedly obvious that the assistant was the killer. But in 1925, before the publication of very nearly every single book that contained such a twist, this must have been astonishing and avant-garde and even thrilling. I expect that the Silly Ass narrator idea was also in its infancy and no one had yet done much with it — in fact everything here that is presently a boring cliche was fresh and new. Even the country house mystery hadn’t been done to death at this point.

The other main reason is that this is the first book by an author who went on to write some of the most important and influential puzzle mysteries in the history of the genre. This is by no means his best book, not even close, but you can see the bones of a major talent beginning to fill out with flesh. This book is filled with cleverness. Some of it doesn’t come off — the two chapters where the action grinds to a halt while the detectives track down a suspect who turns out to be an animal are excruciatingly awful — but the author is not copying anything, or riffing on anything, or providing variations on a theme. He’s inventing things that we think of as absolutely classical trophes of the genre.

Frontispiece, SheringhamYou will probably find this volume difficult to take seriously, because you have read its imitators so many times before. Ngaio Marsh lifted the idea of interviewing a subject per chapter for about 90 percent of her own books, and ground us all between millstones of boredom while doing so. The false solution then the true was not yet the basis of 90 percent of Ellery Queen’s activities. The locked room mystery was not yet the bailiwick of John Dickson Carr. And at this point in his career, Anthony Berkeley was not yet a polished writer. There’s certainly an artificial air of “jolly hockey sticks and a ha’penny’s worth of chocs a fortnight come Michaelmas” — a forced bonhomie coupled with a deep vein of Anglophilia — that is hard to plough through. Indeed, if this book had been written in 1935, it probably wouldn’t have seen publication. But in 1925, this is the bomb, and you should suspend your critical facilities long enough to slog through it. And you will thereby learn a lot about how mysteries work and where they come from.

Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (UK, Herbert Jenkins, 1925, as by ?) first printing is completely unavailable, it seems. One bookseller suggests that none has come to light in his 34 years of experience. The second printing is available VG, without jacket, for a maximum of $320. The American first, 1929, as by Anthony Berkeley, from Crime Club/Doubleday Doran, is in a similar range of prices. None of these firsts comes in jacket, but there are excellent reproductions available (two of which are shown in this post). Honestly, if I had a book like this without a jacket, I certainly wouldn’t mind having a repro jacket for it; it would add beauty, if not much value.

The contents of the book have apparently now fallen into the public domain since it is available on line from a library as a PDF file here. It is also available in various print on demand formats available over the internet, including Kindle.

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