Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review: The Poisoned Chocolates Case

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

This is very much a book of its time, albeit a well-written one. Roger Sheringham and the five other members of his Crimes Circle each attempt to solve a murder which has stumped Scotland Yard. Sheringham had appeared as an amateur detective in previous Berkeley mysteries and the other participants were all suggestive of one or more prominent figures in contemporary English fiction and public life.

This reviewer found Berkeley’s prose style to be enjoyable. Each character had a different “voice” and each proposed a solution to the murder that was both reasonable and predictable given that person’s (and the people for whom that person was a stand-in) understandings of the world. Reading each of these proposed solutions and the responses each “solution” elicited from the group told this reader more about a particular slice of English life and culture than would several volumes of academic exposition. The writers of murder mysteries routinely use short-cuts, exaggerations and stereotypes in order to make the story believable (for fiction is often held to a higher stand of “reality” than is reality itself) and yet the picture that they draw must adhere either the reality the reader understands or proscribes. Since different authors attracted different audiences the varied realities one comes across in these books gives the present day reader a vivid picture of the actual and mental world of the English reader of popular murder mysteries in the first half of the interwar period.

While some of the presumptions and understandings upon which the amateur detectives’ solutions are based will probably come as no surprise to today’s reader others seem to be more appropriate to a Monty Python sketch than a book that is not categorized as farce or magical realism. As this reader expected servants and clerks exist only to be questioned and to fulfill their practical functions. For example, at no point in the story did any person suggest that a member of the working or lower middle class might have played an intentional role in the murder. What was surprising was the degree to which the differences in the way in which men who went to one of the public schools and men who were “merely” well educated were considered as real, tangible evidence of who could and could not have committed the crime given the different solutions proposed. There was also a general agreement not only that men acted (and thought) differently than did women but that methods of murder would differ not only by the gender and education of the murderer but also by the gender of the murdered.

Although The Poisoned Chocolates Mystery is not a collection of short stories it can be read in a similar fashion as the the reader (and the members of the Crime Circle) are introduced to the crime and each of the six present, on separate nights, their proposed solution. There are no maps or complicated alibi checklists to reference. In short, a well written and diverting story for the reader who enjoys murder mysteries written in the early period of the “Golden Age.”

Rating: 4 stars


  1. So was the mystery ever definitively solved? Do we find out for sure who poisoned the chocolates?

    Because I'm reminded of Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, where a politician's wife disappears shortly after he loses an election in a spectacularly crushing defeat. The book switches between flashbacks to their life together, flashbacks to his service in Vietnam, and an unnamed narrator's series of possible explanations for what happened to her. And we never do learn the truth, if the author had one; apparently, the reader is supposed to evaluate the possibilities in the light of the characters' personalities and histories. Interesting, but definitely more of a "literary" work than a standard "mystery." The whole point of the mystery genre, after all, is that we do get to solve the mystery, to know what really happened.

    Also, I never knew before that there could exist a lake with 14,000 islands in it.

    at no point in the story did any person suggest that a member of the working or lower middle class might have played an intentional role in the murder.
    You mean, the butler didn't do it?

    And in spite of that cliche, I can't call to mind any "golden age" mysteries where the butler actually did do it. I believe it was considered both too easy a solution-- servants having easy access to rooms and food and so on, where an author has to come up with a plausible way for an upper-class person to introduce the poison or sneak into someone else's library, or whatever-- and also kind of unsporting. The gentleman detective should match wits with someone of his own class.

    I seem to recall some Georgette Heyer on your TBR list. Have you read Why Shoot a Butler?, where she turns the cliche around by having the butler, an actual butler, as the victim. And I believe there's a valet who's deeply involved in the goings-on. Also, A Blunt Instrument, which in case you haven't read it, all I'll say is it also includes "a member of the working or lower middle class" who takes a large part in the events surrounding the murder of a wealthy cad.

    Benson report: I've finished The Worshipful Lucia, and that scene where she and Georgie come to an understanding of what their marriage will be like, is hilarious. But Mayor? Really? Is she going to actually have to do some real work, for once?

    Have just started Trouble for Lucia, so I guess I'll find out. But what liars these people are! And they all know that the others are all liars and exaggerators and truth-shaders, but they all keep trying to get away with lies and exaggerations and truth-shadings themselves...Oh well, I suppose they're not so different from the rest of us, after all. We all want to present ourselves in the best light, and don't quite see ourselves as others see us!

  2. I enjoy quite a few Golden Age mysteries, but while I can overlook the class problems by reading with the mindset of the era I do get fed up with writers trying to be clever by pushing at the edge of the rules. Agatha Christie is particularly prone to this: the narrator did it, the detective did it, the victim did it, nobody did it, everybody did it...

    Of course there's no explicit contract laid out when one reads a mystery, any more than there is with a romance; but in both cases I think there are implicit expectations, and leaving the reader (at least this reader) feeling cheated is not good for repeat business.

  3. Ah but you can't rely on Roger Sheringham - there was one of his, the title of which escapes me, where the detective announces at the beginning that so-and-so is above suspicion, they play the part of love interest for the sidekick, and it turns out he/she did it.
    That was the only thing I liked about the book, so I disagree with the previous commentator, I like it when the author plays with the conventions.

  4. I think that one of the things that attracts me to murder mysteries is the combination of logic puzzle and characterisation. I'm not one of the timetable-scanners (which is why Sayers' Five Red Herrings falls a little flat for me), but even in non-'tec reading I have little patience for unreliable narrators, and - I should emphasise I'm not trying to tell anyone else what to enjoy - I tend to want a "fair" puzzle, and if you can't even trust what the narrator or principal investigator says then it doesn't feel fair. Thus... hmm, mmy, does it count as spoilers to discuss the plots of specific Agatha Christie books? I'll rot13 them, drop the subject completely, or take such other steps as you deem appropriate.

  5. @Firedrake: Yeah I would ROT-13 plots. Or at least put SPOILER WARNING at the top of your comments.

    Would love to read your opinions on Christie.

    @Anonymous: Like you I enjoy it when authors play around with conventions -- which were, after all, not conventions until the "greats" decided on them.

    In fact some of the books from that period seem almost "post modern" given the various techniques the authors were experimenting with.

  6. OK, rot13 it is. ( will translate what follows, in which I assume the reader is familiar with the works of Christie.)

    BX, pbafvqre Gur Zheqre bs Ebtre Npxeblq. Gur pbaprvg bs aneengbe nf zheqrere jnf pregnvayl fbzrguvat gung unqa'g orra gevrq orsber, ohg rira ng gur gvzr vg jnf choyvfurq vg jnf sryg ol fbzr erivrjref gb or oernxvat pbairagvba naq abg cynlvat snve. Rira jvgubhg gung, gubhtu, gur frghc qbrf ivbyrapr gb gur haqreylvat fgbel - gur aneengbe vf qryvorengryl qrprvivat gur ernqre, naq sbe nyy ur pna fnl gung ur gbyq ab npghny yvr vg'f abg na nppbhag gung nalbar jbhyq jevgr jvgubhg na vagrag gb qrprvir.

    Nf V fnvq, V'z abg sbaq bs gur haeryvnoyr aneengbe naljnl, ohg va n qrgrpgvir fgbel vg frrzf n cnegvphyne ceboyrz: vs lbh unir gb zvfgehfg abg bayl crbcyr'f fgngrzragf ohg rirelguvat lbh'er gbyq nobhg n fvghngvba, ubj pna lbh rssrpgviryl zngpu jvgf jvgu gur qrgrpgvir?

    Zheqre ba gur Bevrag Rkcerff vf ol zl yvtugf n orggre fgbel, ohg rira gung srryf yvxr n ovg bs n purng - ntnva, gurer'f na vzcyvpvg pbagenpg gung gurer jvyy or bar be ng zbfg gjb zheqreref, naq gur riraghny erfbyhgvba bs "rirelobql qvq vg" znxrf gur ernqre'f thrffjbex zrnavatyrff.

  7. You can Rot13 if you wish, but it makes no difference to me. Because, except for the two or three obvious exceptions, I agree with Ogden Nash. Who said, if he was asked what book he'd take to a desert island, would answer:

    "What book? What book should it be, sapristi,
    But any book by Agatha Christie?

    I maintain without fear of successful bribery
    One Christie book is as good as a libery.
    The moment you close it, murmuring, 'Splendid!',
    You're forgetting already how it ended,
    And the criminal fingered by Hercule Poirot
    Remains a mystery on the morrow...

    Her name is Agatha Christie Mallowan;
    On my desert isle she is second to no one."

  8. This is just to say: I finished Trouble For Lucia, and have now read the first few pages of a recently-published mystery set in 1865 Scotland.

    And the butler is acting very suspiciously.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.