Beware of the man bearing chocolates, no matter how tempting and soft-centred they seem…..
I was nudged forcefully towards this by a fellow blogger, Karen from Kaggsy’sBookish Ramblings, and surrendered without too much resistance. A book about chocolates! Even if they were advertised as being poisonous. I gently nibbled at chocolates I had bought myself, randomly plucked from hither and thither on the frequently re-stocked shelves of my favourite chocolatiers, as I settled into this delicious Golden Age Crime, with updates
The Poisoned Chocolates Case is part of the British Library Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards – who provides a delectable coda to the case (more later)
Anthony Berkeley – one of the pen names of Anthony Berkeley Cox – wrote a series of books with his central character Roger Sheringham, a classic ‘amateur detective’. In real life Berkeley, a journalist as well as detective story writer, was one of the founder members of the Detection Club, along with several major crime writers of the interwar years, including Agatha Christie.
Berkeley plays with that idea in Poisoned Chocolates, and, in fact, predates it as Roger Sheringham is the founder member of the Crimes Circle club, a select group of 6 with an interest in criminology who meet together to discuss crimes and crime writing
A Murder has been committed by Chocolate. Sir Eustace Pennefather, unpleasant, irascible lecher and seducer, is sent a box of chocolates by one of the major confectionery firms catering to the sophisticated and wealthy. The confectioners are asking for his patronage, wanting him to ‘test and review’ a new range. Pennefather is clearly no chocolate aficionado as the solicitation infuriates him and he is on the verge of binning the box. (Question: why has no purveyor of only the very best, dark chocolates not contacted me to ask if I would like a steady supply of Advance Review chocolates??) By chance, another member of Pennefather’s club is present when the chocolates arrive. Graham Bendix had lost a bet he had made with his wife Joan, on the solution of a murder mystery play. Joan had guessed correctly and Bendix’s forfeit is a box of chocolates. Sir Eustace gives Bendix the box, and Bendix takes them home to Joan. Unfortunately, the chocolates which were intended for Sir Eustace were poisoned. Greedy Joan eats several, despite the fact that they taste a bit odd, and painfully dies.
Joan Bendix was not so serious-minded as not to have a healthy interest in good chocolates
As is almost always the case in these Golden Age cosies, the police are stumped. Chief Inspector Moresby comes, vaguely helmet in hand, to Roger Sheringham. The Crimes Circle, wonderfully delineated, one and all, decide to solve the murder. Each of them, on successive nights, will present their conclusions to the rest of the club, who will assess the solution for its possible integrity.
Mrs Fielder-Fleming, a short, round, homely-looking woman who wrote surprisingly improper and most successful plays and looked exactly like a rather superior cook on her Sunday out…….Mr Ambrose Chitterwick blinked his mild blue eyes and assumed the appearance of an intelligent nanny-goat
This offers a marvellous selection of 6 possible solutions, with each member coming up with different motives, different suspects, different important clues and methods of investigation and analysis. Much fun is had, and this might almost be a kind of workshop for aspiring crime writers, except that Berkeley has great fun in playing with the various tropes of the genre, creating some fabulous characters, and writing with verve and dry humour.
You don’t want to sell anything?” asked the maiden suspiciously. Impregnated with all that is best in the go-ahead spirit of English business methods, she naturally looked with the deepest distrust on anybody who might possibly wish to do such an unbusinesslike thing as sell her firm something
It is also a reflection of quite an insular upper class society, where everyone knows everyone – they all go to the same plays, hotels, dinners, restaurants, use the same ‘purveyors of fine whatever’ as each other.
I ‘m definitely going to investigate more by Berkeley, his writing is sophisticated and playful, and each individual voice was well-delineated. It was good fun to have each plausible sounding conclusion roundly debunked by rival members of the circle pressing their own better solution. Of course, the reader very quickly gets themselves in on the joke as they can’t help but try to solve the mystery themselves. The book ends with a rather pleasing question mark, which has allowed for a further ‘solution’ A later crime writer from the seventies Christianna Brand had provided another interpretation for an American reprint. To be honest, I found Brand’s ‘solution’ heavy-handed and lacking in the light-touch sophisticated sly wit of Berkeley’s six stories. And the particular ‘voice’ she chose to take further, one of Berkeley’s characters, did not even sound remotely like the character he had created,
Fortunately, Martin Edwards, editor of the whole series was invited by the publisher to provide an additional solution of his own. And, Bravo, Mr Edwards, not only does he provide yet another wonderful trope of the genre, but he holds Berkeley’s writing voice excellently, and each of the characters whom we have already met continue with the voices and style Berkeley created for each of them. Edward’s tale is like the cherry on the perfectly made, perfectly iced cake, or the star on top of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. An Olé! moment, for sure. I felt like clapping.
A most enjoyable read for the festive season, a real divertissement. Perfact accompaniment……..a plate of lightly steamed spiniach…(look, this is a crime book review, so its not going to be the most obvious suspect, now, is it?? Pay attention!