Had you asserted back in 2014 that the republication of two forgotten crime novels would lay the foundation for one of the most celebrated series of GAD reissues in modern times, well, people would have laughed. And yet the British Library Crime Classics collection, under the stewardship of Martin Edwards and Rob Davies, is now over 50 books deep and gathering momentum for another exciting year. And it’s a sure sign of the hale condition of the series that, far from simply reissuing books, they’re now branching out into original translations with this collection of overseas tales. In the words of Ira Gershwin, who’s got the last laugh now?
George Orwell’s essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’ (1946) is focussed not on the quality of said fictional undertakings but rather the attitudes of a society suffering the “brutalising effects of war” and thus immune to the horror of murder the perspectives of both commission and punishment. Citing the case of the Cleft Chin Murder, in which three people were killed with no meaningful motivation and the opprobrium of the public was vented upon the couple responsible, the sentiment of the final line is easily the most powerful; “crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them”.
We live in a world where the 80 novels and collections of short stories by Agatha Christie are in no doubt — she wrote them, they were published, and they will doubtless be available in perpetuity. This is equally true of the work of John Dickson Carr, though less readily available, or Miles Burton or Christianna Brand; the work is closed, finished, and while an occasional unknown one may appear at some point, it’s reasonable to assume that there’s nothing meaningful to be added to these bibliographies.
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.