10 February 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Poisoned Chocolate Case by Anthony Berkeley

Edited - I have added something to the review that might be of interest.

Year of publication: 1936
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit
Type of investigator: Group of amateurs
Setting & time:
No. in series: 4

Story:
Amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham has formed the Crime Circle, a club of 6 clever people with an interest in theoretical criminology. A police inspector from Scotland Yard has decided to hand them a real unsolved case and see if they succeed where the police have failed. They have a week to prepare, and at the end of it each must put his or her case to the others, who will have a chance to accept or disprove the theory.

The case concerns a middle-aged rogue who, upon receiving in the mail a gift box of chocolates, gives it to another man. That man has lost a bet with his wife and gives her the chocolates to settle it, eats some himself and proceeds to fall violently ill. The wife eats even more chocolates and dies of nitrobenzene poisoning.

Who was the intended victim, and who did the dastardly deed? Was it the original recipient, or was it perhaps the other man or his wife, or someone else altogether? Each club member has a different idea, and so do the police.

Warning: here be SPOILERS

Review:
This is not only a murder mystery, but also an exercise in detection and a showcasing of different motives, types of twists and red herrings, detection methods and mistakes sleuths can make. As such, it should be read by all aspiring mystery writers, who will be able to learn much from it, not the least how to convince their readers that their sleuth’s solution is the only possible one. This is one of those stories where, while each sleuth discovers something new about the case in their search for the truth, all the facts necessary in order to solve the mystery are really set out right at the beginning, allowing the reader to compete with the sleuths as they draw their various conclusions, several of which would have made a quite credible final solution.

The characters are an interesting collection of people: a pompous, theatrical trial lawyer, two mystery writers, one cynical, the other arrogant, a cool and detached writer of literary fiction, a bumbling but very intelligent playwright, and a modest and mild little man of no particular appearance who had been even more surprised at being admitted to this company of personages than they had been at finding him amongst them, to use Berkeley’s words. Each character is well drawn, and each has his or her own method of arriving at a solution.

The only member of the club with practical crime-solving experience is Roger Sheringham, a somewhat unlikeable man whom Berkeley treats with a kind of loving disrespect. Sheringham is the only one of the sleuths we get to follow around while he is doing his detecting, which has the purpose of underlining that he is the series sleuth, and to show the reader some of the mistakes that can be made when cluegathering.

There is a thread of humour that runs through the whole narrative from beginning to end, sometimes gently mocking both reader and characters by drawing out the ridiculous in a situation, and at other times satirising the mystery genre. Without the humour this would have been a rather dull story, in spite of all the juicy detecting.

The last of the possible solutions will be a surprise to many, but I disagree with the reviewer who said it was the least likely suspect who did the deed – I think this person was supposed to be the obvious murderer right from the start, so obvious that few readers would even notice right away. I don’t think I will say any more on the subject, as I want other readers to discover this humorous and delightful twist for themselves and draw their own conclusions as to whether it is the correct one.

Edit: For those who are interested in this kind of exercise, there is a similar exercise in Ellery Queen's The Siamese Twin Mystery, where, before coming up with the right solution, the Queens propose several different solutions to a murder mystery, only to either immediately prove it couldn't have been so or to have other characters reveal evidence that proves them wrong.

Rating: A classic mystery that should satisfy anyone who has ever disagreed with an author about the most obvious solution to the crime. 5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 116

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