If there’s anything to speak to Anthony Berkeley being one of the better mystery writers of the Golden Age, it’s that he was able to produce The Piccadilly Murder: an absolutely delightful read from cover to cover, even though by its very premise it lacks a mystery. For you see, the story opens with amateur detective Ambrose Chitterwick lunching at the Piccadilly Palace, and before his eyes watching a man pour poison into a distracted woman’s cup of coffee. The woman passes away minutes later, and Chitterwick quickly points out the culprit to the police.
That the namesake “Piccadilly Murder” unfolds in such cut and dry fashion – and yet is the murder that the novel revolves around – should be a mortal blow to the book, as you have to wonder what the subsequent 200+ pages could possibly be about. And yet you’re not going to put the book down, because Berkeley is in the groove. Much of his success takes the form of Ambrose Chitterwick, a delightfully self centered character who casts an eye of snarky judgment on everyone he comes into contact with, and yet is somewhat just as much of a fool as the recipients of his observations.
“For if Ambrose’s hair went on disappearing at that rate he’d soon be as bald as a coot, and the only way to stop hair disappearing, as anybody but a perfect guffin knew, was to wear a night cap.”
It’s Chitterwick’s habit of crowd watching/judging that lands him in the mess of observing a murder, and there’s delicious passage where he finds himself caught while staring.
“If there is one impulse more powerful than any other it is the intense longing to turn one’s eyes in a forbidden direction. Mr Chitterwick fought it manfully for more than a minute, and a whole minute, when spent in fighting an impulse, is a very long time indeed. Then he succumbed. Trembling with agitation, he flashed a swift glance toward the red-haired man and away again. If Mr. Chitterwick had been a hen, he would have clucked. For the red-haired man’s gaze was still fixed on him.”
It’s moments like these – and I appreciate that they probably hit better when read in context – that make the book. It’s nonstop “Chitterwick” the entire way, and in my experience, Anthony Berkeley is at his best when he plays out his Sheringham/Chitterwick characters to the fullest.
Chitterwick, the more observant reader may recall, was one of the characters in Berkeley’s best known work (at least it seems these days) The Poisoned Chocolates Case (published the same year), and there are several references to that previous case in The Piccadilly Murder. Chitterwick went on to play a minor role in another excellent novel (published as Francis Iles) – Trial and Error. It’s interesting that Berkeley is so known for his Rodger Sheringham detective, because Chitterwick is just as enjoyable.
With the murder open and shut within the opening chapters, the story focuses on a group of friends trying to convince Chitterwick to renounce his testimony so that the murderer can go free. The plot feels pretty predictable throughout, and the reader will have the smug satisfaction of figuring out the various revelations pages, if not chapters, before the characters. I’m pretty sure Berkeley is letting the reader do that, and in the end, after so much foresight throughout the read, I stepped on the rake that he had planted and took the pole directly to the face. Yes, Berkeley had me looking exactly where he wanted and he fooled me good.
I enjoyed The Piccadilly Murder quite a bit more than Jumping Jenny (aka Dead Mrs Stratton) – a recently republished Berkeley novel that seems to be garnering a good reputation these days – so if you enjoyed that one, I’d encourage you to check this out. Unfortunately, I don’t know that it’s that widely available. I was fortunate enough to be gifted a 1983 Dover edition, and when I’ve seen it available online it wasn’t exactly cheap.