From time to time I’ll mention my To Be Read pile – a stack of books that I plan to read next. It’s positioned on the desk that I work at so I can gaze longingly at it throughout the day and imagine the mysteries awaiting within all of those titles. Ok, ok, it’s actually five TBR piles – two devoted to John Dickson Carr (it would be way too tall if it was one stack), two devoted to Agatha Christie (and only a fraction of her library), and one stack of books by assorted authors (Christiana Brand, Michael Gilbert, Edmund Crispin, etc, etc, etc) that I’ve decided on a whim I’ll be reading some time soon.
What I haven’t mentioned are my To Be Read shelves. Oh, I know you have them too. If we piled up all of the books that we have yet to read we’d look like straight up hoarders and…er…we’re not hoarders, right? We’re aficionados! My TBR shelves are well packed because there are too many authors that blogs like Beneath the Stains of Time, The Invisible Event, Noah’s Archive, or Cross Examining Crime have convinced me that I need to buy. Plus, I have an insane number of Ellery Queen books that I’m not exactly going to get through this decade…
Another population on my TBR shelves is what I call “weird form factor” books. You know what I’m talking about, right? These are mostly recent editions published by the likes of British Library, Locked Room International, or Coachwhip. Compared to the 1940-1980 paperbacks that I generally like to read, these newer books are big and awkward. I can’t stack them in my pile! You can’t throw a Paul Halter LRI into the middle of a stack of 4×7 Dell/Avon/Berkleys – that would be uncivilized!
The result of this is that I have a number of books that I really want to read sitting on my TBR shelf, and they somewhat slip my mind. I just kind of forget that they’re there. Case in point – I’ve actually owned The Poisoned Chocolates Case for nearly two years, but reading it never really crossed my mind since it wasn’t in one of my actual TBR piles (Derek Smith’s classic impossible crimes are suffering a similar fate). A hunt for a durable book to take along on a recent trip jolted my memory, and I finally had my first encounter with Anthony Berkeley.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case is well know around these parts – in fact, I bet you’ve read it. If you haven’t, drop everything you’re doing and read it immediately. From cover to cover this may be one of the most consistent mysteries I’ve read. The cast of characters was perfect, the satire was sharp, the mystery intriguing, Berkley’s wit rang throughout, and the pacing was excellent.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case is famous for having a large number of solutions – seven to be exact. And if there’s anything I love, it’s a false solution. Well, scratch that – I like high quality false solutions, such as the mid-story theory proposed in the John Dickson Carr / John Rhode collaboration Fatal Descent or the multiple clever accusations flung about in Christiana Brand’s Suddenly At His Residence.
You need to be able to believe in a false solution – it should provide all of the satisfaction of a true denouement, rather than being a flimsy theory. The position of the false solution in a book typically clues the reader in to the fact that it isn’t the final one. I feel comfortable discussing the false solution in Fatal Descent openly since it is presented at the midway point, and you’re obviously not going to read 100 more pages about the case wrapping up uneventfully.
These illusions don’t always work though. I couldn’t wait for Ellery Queen’s notorious head spinner The Greek Coffin Mystery, but the false solutions were laughable towers of logic built on toothpicks of evidence. Leo Bruce’s The Case for Three Detectives had me lapping at the promise of…er…three detectives offering the solution to a locked room puzzle, but the false solutions felt a bit too similar and didn’t tug at the imagination (thankful there was a belter of a true solution waiting at the end).
Anthony Berkeley provides a perfect nesting ground for false solutions in The Poisoned Chocolates Case by focusing the story on a group of amateur criminologists making up The Crime Club. The group typically meets once a week to discuss mysteries and true crimes of yesteryear, but ringleader Roger Sheringham has a new idea. The group will attempt to solve a current murder that has stumped even Scotland Yard. The participants are given a week to investigate the case of a woman poisoned by…wait for it… poisoned chocolates. They take turns each spending an evening laying out the theory they’ve formed to the rest of the group.
As an aside – should the title of the book be read as “the investigation in which poisoned chocolates were involved” or “the container of poisoned chocolates”? Discuss…
The story plays out brilliantly. Each amateur detective comes up with their own air tight solution to the case, and, of course, each case is punctured by another club member pointing out a fatal flaw. The fact that each investigator is such a perfect character (or caricature) contributes to the appeal of each “solution”. The blustering ancient lawyer, the razor witted female author, the shrill playwright, the cocky male writer, the enigma, and the leader of the gang – professional jackass Roger Sheringham. Ah, Roger Sherignham, how I love you….
I’ve read reviews of a number of Anthony Berkeley’s books, and I’ve always had the impression that Sheringham was a reviled character. Oh, he’s a got a bit of snark, that one, but it’s just delicious. This is the prototype for Carr’s much despised Patrick Butler, and Berkeley’s version is ten times better. Throw this character in most any book and it would be twice as good.
“A murderer is really making a magnificent bet with the police, …with the lives of himself and his victims as the stakes; if he gets away with it, he wins both; if he’s caught, he loses both.”
The pace of the novel is excellent in that (starting at page 60 of my edition) we get a full denouement from each member of the crime club. Not just some quick pitch of a solution, but typically a two chapter stretch of the evidence being laid out in a manner appropriate for the end of any respectable mystery novel. Each is quickly followed by a chapter of the case being demolished. The early solutions aren’t exactly jaw droppers, but you’d accept them readily in most three star GAD novels. As the story progresses, the solutions become more and more engrossing. In similar form, the destruction of each solution becomes droller and droller. It’s both the delight of the eroder and the enraged shock of the eroded that makes this read delicious.
The final solution simply left me shell shocked. Berkley plays this wisely in that I think most readers will glom onto the solution quite a few pages before it’s presented. Similar to Christiana Brand in several of her novels, the reader is left to interpret what is implied rather than being spoon-fed an answer.
I couldn’t leave well enough alone though. You see, I simply had to have the 2016 British Library reprint because it contained two additional solutions. That’s right – none other than Christiana Brand (in 1979) and Martin Edwards (in 2016) had contributed their own extensions to the story, each providing a further solution to the mystery. That’s too good to be true, right?
Well, in a sense, it is. You see, the original solution to The Poisoned Chocolates Case is the perfect finale to the book. The story has an amazing arc, and it ends on such a classic moment that you need to walk away and digest it, similar to novels like John Dickson Carr’s She Died a Lady or He Who Whispers, or Christiana Brand’s Green for Danger or Fog of Doubt. Put down the book, go do something else and take time to absorb it.
The problem with the British Library edition is that you turn the page and you’re presented with Christiana Brand’s chapter. In a sense, this immediately invalidates an incredibly powerful moment and you read on as if you simply flipped to the next chapter. Well, yes, to be fair, this is actually a problem of my own self doing, but I think it’s a natural response (plus I was stuck on a plane for another hour).
Christiana Brand’s chapter was a let down for me. The writing style was an abrupt jolt from Berkeley’s and the chapter didn’t feel in any way related to the previous 18 that I had just read. I hadn’t expected this – I’ve loved everything that I’ve read by Brand up to this point, even her foray into historic romance with Alas For Her That Met Me. Brand’s solution is pure throw away and didn’t possess any of the spirit or logic of the previous chapters.
Martin Edward’s chapter took me by surprise for the complete opposite reason. It melded seamlessly into the book and under different circumstances I could have been tricked into thinking it was part of the original story. Edwards follows Berkeley’s style faithfully in plotting out an additional solution, although it felt a bit plain – right up until the final sentence that caused me to gasp/chuckle out loud (while packed in amongst passengers on an airplane, mind you).
While I didn’t care for Brand’s contribution, Edwards’ was a fun accompaniment. Still, I would spend some time after reading the original story and maybe pick up another book before returning to the supplementary content. Why? Because the original story is just that good.
I came in thinking The Poisoned Chocolates Case was going to be good and it ended up being better than I expected. The core crime itself doesn’t possess a crazy hook like an impossibility, but the stacked up false solutions more than makes up for it.. The writing was superb and the characters were memorable. This definitely makes my list for top non-impossible crimes.