If you’ve been paying attention, especially to my comments left both here and elsewhere, you’ll be aware that my typing is rather famously variable. 90% of the time I’m good, but that other 10% — man, some errors there are. Writing something recently, I made reference to the novel Five Little Pugs by Agatha Christie and then — catching myself in time to correct it — I had a thought…
Slightly belatedly, here are my thoughts on the companion piece to ‘The Scoop’ (1931), another portmanteau mystery written for radio by some of the luminaries of the Golden Age. This time around, Hugh Walpole sets the problem of a dead body found in your typical Stage 3 suburban household, and Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley, and Ronald Knox contribute to its unpicking.
Most fans of Golden Age detective fiction (GAD) will be aware of the portmanteau novel The Floating Admiral (1931) in which many luminaries of the form each contributed a chapter in turn to a murder mystery plot (pity poor Anthony Berkeley, who had to unravel all the clues and events to provide a coherent solution in the final chapter). I’m imagining that slightly — but only slightly — fewer of you will be aware of the precursors to this novel written in the preceding year, where the same sort of approach was taken for two mysteries to be broadcast on radio.
You suggested the titles, you voted, and now here we are: these are the top ten novels demonstrating fair-play in detective fiction as selected by nearly 500 votes on 40 titles. Except there are twelve of them, because we had a few ties. So, alphabetically by author we have…
What’s in a name? When you’re dealing with GAD authors, quite a lot, which is why I’ve read 71 books by Agatha Christie but have yet to pick up any by Mary Westmacott, or why so much attention is paid to the four books Barnaby Ross published in his two-year career. So when I say this Anthony Berkeley novel would be far better were it by Frances Iles, you will hopefully appreciate my point. I thought it worth looking at the genre’s arch convention-challenger — one of the four most important male authors of his era, according to some attractive genius — for the 1937 Crimes of the Century and have come away somewhat confused, bemused, muddled, harried, and generally all a-fluster.
I’ve read a lot of comics in my time, I spend many hours online enthusiastically contributing to discussions about a moderately obscure area of popular culture — hell, I even wear glasses. I must, therefore, be a nerd. I mean, sure, I don’t own a single t-shirt emblazoned with some hilarious-but-obscure quote or image, but that’s mainly because the kinds of things I’d put on a t-shirt — “Hairy Aaron!” or, say, a decal of Gideon Fell above the legend Don’t irritate a man who knows 142 ways to kill you without being the same room — no-one else wants on a t-shirt and so they’re not available to buy.
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.