21.12.10

Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case


In keeping with the theme of holiday sweets, we turn from my last post on Visions of Sugar Plums to The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Anthony Berkeley (pseudonym for Anthony Berkeley Cox) is best known as the founder of England’s elite Detection Club (1928), an organization that still exists today and has always included leading mystery writers. In Berkeley’s time, members took an oath swearing to use “fair play” with readers by providing them with enough clues to solve the mystery. When asked,“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God,” they were obliged to swear yes.

Anthony Berkeley studied law but worked as a journalist, detective writer, and mystery critic. He also wrote a number of classic detective novels under the pseudonym Francis Iles. Berkeley/Iles is particularly known for two novels: The Poisoned Chocolates Case and Malice Aforethought. Scaggs calls the former “an acknowledged classic” (2005, 36), and Symons claims it is “one of the most stunning trick stories in the history of detective fiction” (1992, 111). The Poisoned Chocolates Case originated as a short story called “The Avenging Chance.”

The novel begins with a meeting of the newly formed Crimes Circle detection club. Its founder, Roger Sheringham, invites Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Moresby to tell members the story of an unsolved murder case. This case begins with Sir Pennefather receiving a promotional box of chocolates. Not wanting them, he gives the box to Mr. Benix who takes them home to his wife. After eating seven of them, Mrs. Benix dies. The members take it upon themselves to solve the murder. Like the actual Detection Club, the Crimes Circle follows rules agreed upon by its members. The sleuths are given a week to solve the crime and an evening a piece to present their solutions to the case.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is noteworthy for its seven perfectly plausible solutions to the murder. Berkeley’s detailed knowledge of law, police procedures, and criminology is evident throughout the narrative. The crime is cleverly worked out and the ending is completely unexpected.

Characteristic of detective novels of the time (see my post on Golden Age mysteries), the Crimes Circle members treat the murder as an intellectual game, “prattling joyfully upon this and that connected with murder, poisons and sudden death” (1). Each of the six amateur detectives tries to outwit the others. Poking fun at the artificiality of the detective genre, Berkeley writes, “To Miss Dammers it was immaterial whether her own mother had been mixed up in the murder, so long as her part in it had provided opportunities for the sharpening of wits and the stimulation of intelligence” (99).

What is unique about this cozy mystery is its self-reflexive nature. Berkeley satirizes detective writers and their methods, making fun of the “pedantic snobbery” that had crept into their works (Symons 1992, 111). Chitterwick (one of the amateur sleuths) claims that in detective novels,
it is frequently assumed that any given fact can admit of only one single deduction, and that invariably the right one. Nobody else is capable of drawing any deductions at all but the author’s favourite detective, and the ones he draws (in the books where the detective is capable of drawing deductions at all which, alas, are only too few) are invariably right. (272)
All the Crimes Circle members thoroughly convince their colleagues of a shrewd but wrong interpretation of events. Berkeley is particularly effective at exposing the clever way individuals twist and distort facts to suit their purposes. Sir Charles, for example,
could take fact, look it boldly in the face, twist it round, read a message from the back of its neck, turn it inside out and detect auguries in its entrails, dance triumphantly on its corpse, pulverize it completely, remould it if necessary into an utterly different shape, and finally, if the fact had the temerity to retain any vestige of its primary aspect, bellow at it in the most terrifying manner. (58)
Berkeley honed his humorous writing skills in literary pieces for Punch and The Humorist. If you like witty, clever detective novels written in a light-hearted tone, you will certainly enjoy The Poisoned Chocolates Case.

Berkeley, Anthony. The Poisoned Chocolates Case. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1929.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.