The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley (1929)

PoisonedChocolatesFrom 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!

TBRstack
It’s against nature!

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.

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27 thoughts on “The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley (1929)”

  1. Thanks for this review! I had no idea the Martin Edwards solution existed and I will have to find a copy of the edition that includes it. I did read the Brand solution years back and my reaction was that it hadn’t exactly been crying out to be written.

    Great point about how Roger Sheringham is similar to Patrick Butler. I think the difference between them is that John Dickson Carr tells us firmly that Butler has charm, while Berkeley actually gives Roger some.

    I’ve read about half of the Berkeley/Francis Iles corpus. Poisoned Chocolates is the best one I’ve read so far, but there are a lot of other good ones (Vane Mystery, Murder in the Basement, Jumping Jenny, Trial and Error, Not to be Taken)… as well as some mediocre ones, and the absolute stinker that is Death in the House.

    Looking at your TBR pile, I envy you getting to read Caves of Steel, Love Lies Bleeding, Calamity Town and Malice Aforethought for the first time.

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      1. Vane Mystery is an apprentice work compared to Berkeley’s later output, but I really enjoyed the (mostly) friendly rivalry between Roger and Moresby, and (MINOR SPOILER WARNING) the fact that it wasn’t Roger who ended up solving the mystery.

        Murder in the Basement: I enjoyed following Moresby as he proceeded with his initial investigation after the body was found – a sort of crime procedural of the 1930s. When it was over, I was actually surprised I hadn’t been impatient to get on to the more traditional “Golden Age mystery” part of the story.

        I liked matching wits with Roger as he solved the mystery-within-a-mystery of who the victim was.

        And I enjoyed Roger’s unfinished novel – I would have been happy with a book-length continuation as a non-mystery story of school life. The various teachers and other employees, both in the manuscript and the rest of the story, were a great cast of potential murderers.

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  2. Great review! I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I’ve loved seeing you read Carr and all of the other GAD writers for the first time. POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE is definitely one of the all-time greats.

    Yeah, that Brand chapter doesn’t really add much to the story. AFAIK, it originated in a project from the ’70s called “The Mystery Library,” which reprinted famous mystery novels with an absurd amount of bonus material. Their edition of POISONED CHOCOLATES included Brand’s chapter, plus “The Avenging Chance” (the short story from which the novel was expanded), an essay on Berkeley by Carr, an annotated checklist of Berkeley’s stories, historical background on the real-life murder cases mentioned in the book, and lots of other stuff.

    Speaking of Brand, you’ve got an overlooked gem on your TBR pile with CAT AND MOUSE. I seem to be the only person alive who likes this book, but I think it’s just as great as the Cockrill series. CUE FOR MURDER is another good one; I’ve only read that and two other books by McCloy, but I’ve liked all of them a lot.

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    1. Thanks for the background on the Mystery Library edition – that sounds like one worth hunting down for all of the bonus material.

      I’ve really been looking forward to Cat and Mouse, so it’s nice to hear a positive comment. It seems to be one of those titles that seldom gets reviewed and I’m going in knowing nothing about it, other than recalling someone complain that it’s a gothic melodrama. At this point I’d be pretty surprised if there is a Brand novel that I don’t like.

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  3. Oh, the former, definitely. Case, not case of.

    Either way, it’s a deluxe item – the criminous equivalent of a handcrafted Belgian praline. Smooth, with an ironic aftertaste – a soupcon of bitter almonds!

    The solution is a surprise – but it also builds on some of the false solutions. I particularly like Mr Bradley’s tongue in cheek effort.

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      1. Berkeley was a master of the twist, double, and even triple twist. His plots are rarely as simple as ABC, so to speak Unsurprisingly, JDC was a huge fan. Jumping Jenny, Trial and Error, The Piccadilly Murder, and Top Storey Murder are all really first rate. Have fun!

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      2. Berkeley was a master of the twist, double, and even triple twist.

        I think the best demonstration of Berkeley’s skill as a plotter is the final chapter of the Detection Club round-robin novel The Floating Admiral. The story could have easily ended up as one big mess had it not been for Berkeley making it look like it had been all planned from the beginning.

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  4. This was one of my favourite reads of 2015 (I think) – I recall finding its humour spot-on, though I agree that the final solution seemed slightly inevitable to me. It was one of the rare occasions where I guessed the ending – and one of the even rarer occasions where I enjoyed the novel despite guessing the ending. I quite enjoyed both Brand’s and Edwards’s proposed solutions, but I think Berkeley’s solution made best sense of what the novel set out to achieve.

    Thanks for the review. 🙂

    P.S. The comment on ‘Greek Coffin Mystery’ is dampening my enthusiasm and expectation of the novel…

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  5. This is great fun to read and obviously a landmark in terms of what can be done with the genre. However, to me the best part of a mystery is the pleasure of a solution that feels both ingenious and inevitable–“Of course, that’s the only way it could have happened!” It’s hard to feel completely satisfied with the final solution here, especially when, in this edition, more solutions just keep coming endlessly.

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  6. Glad you enjoyed this one. I think I loved this one more on my re-read of it for the blog, which is unusual. Like JFW I liked CB and Martin’s endings. Sheringham is reined in, in this book – the later the books get, the more manageable he becomes. In some of the early ones he is a right pain in the you know what. Berkeley hunting is tough but definitely worth the effort.

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  7. Is there such a thing as a “case” of chocolates? It’d be a box, surely? Either way, I think the convention of titles in this era — Case for Three Detectives, Case for Sergeant Beef, The Ponson Case, The Case of the Constant Suicides, etc — answers your question for you.

    Delighted that you found so much to enjoy in this one; it’s a stone cold classic in my estimation, one of the truly vital books in the genre, and possessed of such brilliance and cunning that you can easily see it encouraging as many writers as it will have dissuades — after all, how could anything they write be as good as that?!??!

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    1. Perhaps it’s an American thing (or I’m inventing it in my head), but I think one might say “a case of chocolates” similar to saying “a case of beer”. Of course, you could say “a box of chocolates” too, and that would probably be much more common. Hmm, I think I’m inventing this whole question…

      The downside to having read The Poisoned Chocolates Case is that I can’t imagine I’ll ever again read a story as well constructed as that. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of brilliant reads ahead of me, but doubt many will excel in this dimension.

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      1. It was rereading this book — with considerably more GAD mileage under my belt than the first time I picked it up — which I think gave me a new appreciation for genre non-conformists like Philip MacDonald’s The Maze and The Rynox Mystery, Anthony Rolls’ Family Matters, Virgil Markham’s The Devil Drives, and others. You see people trying to find a new way to construct a “detective story” because so much of what is being done is so repetitious and so perhaps it’s time to try something new.

        I almost feel a little sorry for whatever you read next. Seems the only sensible thing is to go for a stone cold masterpiece like Whistle Up the Devil 😉

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  8. I enjoyed your review (as always). The Poisoned Chocolates Case is one of my favorite detective novels—both a solid puzzle and a hilarious spoof. I thought I’d solved it early on, though I wasn’t sure which of my two solutions was the right one. Then when my solutions turned out to be #4 and #5, with #6 to come, I was completely baffled and had no idea whodunit, so I began rereading from the beginning. Well, at least I solved it my second time through.

    I like, and agre with, Justice for the Corpse’s comments on Sheringham and Butler. Sheringham is an (intentionally) annoying character without being irritating (as Butler is); you enjoy seeing him taken down a peg, but want to read more books with him.

    I think The Poisoned Chocolates Case is Berkeley’s masterpiece, but Trial and Error and Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery are also among my favorite Berkeleys, though the former is overlong and the latter is not well known (I donated my extra copy to the library where I work, LaGrange College in Georgia, so if any of you live in the US and want to read it without paying it, ask your local library to request it from us—we don’t charge). It has (IMO) an excellent false solution.

    On your To-be-read pile: I greatly enjoyed Malice Aforethought and Love Lies Bleeding, though the latter has the most long-winded explanation I’ve ever read (but as I recall you don’t like final chapters that rush over the explanation). I had actually heard only high praise for Cat and Mouse, and was somewhat disappointed by it as a result (it may not have helped that I read it on a 21-hour bus trip). But I’ve never read a Brand that wasn’t worth reading.

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    1. I love that you actually went back and read from the beginning before completing the book. My initial suspicions were in the neighborhood of #4 and #5.

      As for your reading experience with Cat and Mouse – I doubt there are many books you’d enjoy while crammed on a bus for the entire duration. I have a few other below the radar Brand titles on the shelf right now – A Ring of Roses and The Rose in Darkness.

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  9. …er…we’re not hoarders, right?  We’re aficionados!

    Yes, I believe the politically correct terms are aficionado or collector. 🙂

    The Poisoned Chocolates Case used to be my favorite Berkeley, but Jumping Jenny has taken that place. Berkeley employs the fallible detective much better in Jumping Jenny and has the added benefit of not being as artificial as Poisoned Chocolates, which is the detective story in its purest, undiluted form. Poisoned Chocolates is a monument of the genre, but Jumping Jenny is much more like the finished product and highly recommended it. Hey, I’m here. So why not toss another title on your wish list.

    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

    I liked the false solutions from The Case for Three Detectives, because they so wonderfully parodied the authors Bruce was spoofing. My favorite was Amer Picon’s solution that implicated two (secret) lovers.

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      1. Yeah, I think you have to be familiar with the authors being parodied to really appreciate CASE FOR THREE DETECTIVES–the different false solutions really do feel exactly like what Christie, Sayers, and Chesterton would come up with if they were writing the story.

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    1. While THE POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE remains my favourite Berkeley, in JUMPING JENNY I do love the way Sheringham is actively trying to thwart the authorities. So much for the claim that GAD is all about restoring order to society.

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  10. So glad you enjoyed this as much as I did. I didn’t think about the pace of it when I reviewed it so thank you for drawing that out. Its surprisingly well paced for a book that is almost entirely solutions as you said.

    And the satire!! Satire on the crime writing genre, satire in crime authors, satire on crime characters, satire on solutions, clues, motives, its immense!!

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  11. Completely agree that Brand’s solution didn’t really add anything new but that Edwards’ was a very believable and satisfying conclusion. Having read “The Avenging Chance” before this novel, I was fascinated to see how Sheringham’s seemingly watertight case would be demolished – and yet demolished it was due to the psychology of those he had been questioning.

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