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Saturday 5 November 2016

‘The Poisoned Chocolates Case’ by Anthony Berkeley

Published by British Library, 
10 October 2016.
ISBN: 978-0-7123-5653-4

The successful writer of detective fiction, Roger Sheringham, has started a club for criminologists. The rules for acceptance are strict and, although Roger had hoped to enlist thirteen members, so far only five other people have proved themselves worthy. As the story opens, they consist of Roger himself, plus a lawyer, a woman dramatist, a female novelist, a male writer of detective stories, all of whom are famous to some degree, and ‘Mr Ambrose Chitterwick, who was not famous at all, a mild little man of no particular appearance who had been even more surprised at being admitted to this company of personages than they had been at finding him amongst them.’

That evening, Roger also invited Detective Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard to be their guest of honour because he has a proposal to put before the group and Moresby has agreed to co-operate. Roger wants the assembly of criminologists to investigate a recent crime that Scotland Yard have failed to solve. They will each work independently and give their solution to the crime to the group to discuss.
The crime Roger proposes that they study is that of Joan Bendix, who was poisoned by a box of chocolates, laced with nitrobenzene, given to her by her husband, Graham. The mystery stems from the fact that Joan was not the intended recipient of the lethal gift. The chocolates had been sent to Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, and the enclosed card claimed that they came from a well known sweet manufacturer in the hope that he would try their new range. Pennefather expressed outrage at such vulgar promotion techniques and passed the chocolates on to Graham Bendix, also a member of the club, when Graham mentioned that he needed to get a box of chocolates for his wife, in payment of a playful bet that she had won. Joan Bendix had no known enemies and she and her husband were regarded as a happy and loving couple. On the other hand, Sir Eustace is a womaniser and a quarrelsome man, with many people who would be happy to see him dead.

The six criminologists all give their solutions to the crime: they are all different, all ingenious, all substantiated by examples from real-life crimes, and, in some cases their identification of the culprit strikes uncomfortably near to home. Meek Mr Chitterwick is the last to offer his solution and he comes up with the most startling suggestion of all.

In 1929, when The Poisoned Chocolates Case was first published, the ending was left at the point where Mr Chitterwick names his murderer. In 1979, Christianna Brand, a member of the Detection Club, who had known Berkeley, wrote a final chapter, rounding off the book. In this 2016 edition, the British Library invited Martin Edwards to contribute his version of a final chapter. Both alternative endings add a new slant to the book. Edwards is remarkably skilled at blending his style to Berkeley’s and achieving the right ‘voice.’

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is a delightful read, witty, full of mischief and mocking the conventions of detective fiction. The characters are amusing, although not all are likeable, and it is fun to encounter Mr Chitterwick, who went on to detect other crimes in his own right. Especially ironic is Roger Sheringham’s dismay as he realises his clever idea to amuse his new club is likely to result in the destruction of the club itself.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is another great Golden Age mystery brought back from oblivion by British Library Crime Classics and I would heartily recommend it to any reader who enjoys detective stories of this period.
Reviewer:  by Carol Westron
Anthony Berkeley was a pen name of Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971), one of the most important figures in the history of British crime fiction. Many of his novels feature the amateur criminologist Roger Sheringham. As well as being the author of many classic detective stories, Berkeley was the founder of the prestigious Detection Club for the finest crime writers.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

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