The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Boucher (1929)
Author: 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.
Publication 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.
This 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.
Each 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.
Why 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.
There 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.
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.