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