The setup of The Poisoned Chocolates Case is rightly very famous: a lady is killed when a box of chocolates given to her husband by another member of his gentlemen’s club — who himself received them unsolicited through the mail — turns out to have been laced with poison. The police, with no culprit in sight, allow six amateurs with a fascination for real life crimes to theorise and present their own solutions, each one appearing watertight until someone finds a flaw that brings the edifice down. For this conceit alone, and the genius way Berkeley uses his different sleuths to unpick the sparse and simple known facts, this book has passed into near-legend in detective fiction circles.
It deserves to be famous for more than simply its core idea, though — for reasons no less than the fact that is it superbly written, full of the kind of vim, snark, weightless insight, and effortless thrust-and-parry that shows the detective novel at its very best, as well as the brilliance of the insight Berkeley is bringing in deconstructing a genre which was only just establishing itself (this being coming out before Agatha Christie had enjoyed arguably her finest decade — the 1930s — and before even the greatest proponent of detective fiction ever to take up the craft — c’mon, you know who I mean — had even published a novel). It is staggeringly ahead of its time in all manner of ways, and in re-reading the new version from the British Library I’ve come to hold it in an even higher regard than I did about 12 years ago when it first (and last) crossed my path.
If you’re expecting the central discussions to revolve around a lot of deliberate and boring examination of minutiae…well, you’re right and wrong. Yes, there’s a great deal of discussion about the few salient points provided, with much of it focussing on why someone gave a particular piece of information a particular significance, but firstly that’s the exact point the book is making, and secondly it is far from boring. Berkeley shows himself quite the kapellmeister extraordinaire in how he brings out the foibles of his sleuths and their methods — Roger Sheringham, nominal lead character by dint of being Berkeley’s series sleuth, at one point “turning a hundred words into six” in a pithy rephrasing of a bombastic speech by someone else, or the recitation of a character whose “somewhat laborious sentences, too obviously learned off by heart for the occasion, detracted if anything from the interest of what she has to convey”. And the opening two paragraphs of chapter 5, capturing the barrister Sir Charles Wildman before he provides the first solution, are simply wonderful.
It’s true that you have to be into your detective fiction to get the most out of this — there’s a fitting meta-examination of how the detective novelist forces particular clewing interpretations on their readers that’ll make your head spin in light of the interpretations we’re then given, and the way motives are imputed to the various suspects in light of real-life cases is an in-joke par excellence — but Berkeley isn’t so impetuous as to exclude anyone who lacks his erudition. This is as great a place to start running the ziggurat of detective fiction as has yet been written, as it will keep you wise to the tricks these authors used so regularly over the next 30 years (I told you he was ahead of his time…). There is also, with seven solutions, more than enough going on to prevent one’s attention from waning too much, since almost every line, every implication, counts towards something.
Yes, some obscure stuff remains: precisely what is meant by referring to a character as a “daisy” will be left up to the reader, and a fairly key point of one deduction relies on knowing what it means to be “on the modern side” in one’s schooling, but — as Noah Stewart and I are wont to discuss — if we can cope with shared phone lines or the use of an operator service in our novels of detection, we’re more than up to the task here, too. It’ll also be up to you whether to club not being open to “all and hungry” is as intended (I looked it up on t’internet and got no hits…), though I was quite delighted to see the defunct “bran-new” retained here — I’ve only ever seen that in this book, and had forgotten it until it cropped up again, so my thanks for the editorial decision to keep it in. And the description of Acton as “a bleak spot somewhere beyond the bounds of civilisation” will probably only work for those of us who know London, but trust me when I say it’s a perfect summation.
In short, then, this is a delight, a positive gallimaufry of the ingredients that would go on to create the joy of this type of story for many years to come. From memory I was going in with a very high regard for what Berkeley achieved, but this reintroduction has given me much more to love.
Noah @ Noah’s Archives: 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 … 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.
The extra delight of this 2016 British Library Crime Classics version is that it not only includes an additional epilogue written by Christianna Brand for a 1979 reprint, but also an additional additional solution by the Detective Club president and current BLCC consultant Martin Edwards. Since these form appendices to the text, and precisely how canon they’re taken to be is up to the individual, I thought I’d address them separately.
Brand’s 4-page twist is as sharp and precise as you’d expect, a figurative stiletto between the ribs as two bodies brush past each other in a crowd; not really a new solution per se, but an interesting take on something already provided that casts Berkeley’s ending in a new hue. It’s a nifty little sting at the end of a tale not exactly lacking in stings itself, and gives one much to think about regarding just how closed the case could be argued to be.
Edwards’ 13-page solution is another answer to the case, with Chief Inspector Moresby roped in to make it official, and even plays on Brand’s own addendum. Edwards gives him self a lot to do in the space, discussing new information that has come to light, introducing another strand to the web, providing means, motive, and opportunity, and overturning Berkeley’s own final solution. While I’m not convinced he completely succeeds in the last of these, I have to say that his own solution is rather superb — just as I was starting to mentally unpick it all, he hit me with an absolute belter of a final line that is both clever and very, very brave. And best of all, he picked as his guilty party the person I was expecting someone else to when I first read this. And he’s got me thinking that there’s even scope for another solution, so feel free to come knocking if this gets reissued in 20 years…
All told, these additions can’t have the same impact as the novel overall due to their relative brevity, but it would be an exceptionally bull-headed reader who could dismiss them as uninteresting or immaterial. It’s a real delight to see two such fertile minds apply themselves to extending this most devious of detective puzzles, and full credit to the British Library for these inclusions and Martin Edwards for rising to the challenge so admirably.