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The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Page history last edited by Jon 7 years, 7 months ago

Berkeley, Anthony - The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1928)

 

Developments in Detective Fiction, 1914-1930

 

Unlike the Second World War, the First World War made little impact on detective fiction; as we have seen, Freeman was able to ignore it altogether. More important was the change in publishing formats – short story magazines became less common and novels became much shorter; novels appearing in the 1920s were only a half to a third the size of their Victorian counterparts.

 

It was during this period that an ideal size for a detective novel was established at somewhere between 180 and 220 pages. Much longer than this, and either the plot becomes too complex to follow or the author has to resort to padding.

 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first novel, was published in 1921; it was regarded as a good beginning but did not stand out dramatically from those around it. The most popular author with the British public in those days was Edgar Wallace, who turned out dozens of racy thrillers and many passable detective stories: some of the best of these are collected in The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder, published in 1929. The Detection Club, formed in London in 1930, became a forum for professional detective fiction authors to share their ideas and views.

 

Fair Play

 

One important issue that occupied the Detection Club was that of fair play. There was a growing recognition that people read detective stories for their puzzle value, to try and reason out the conclusion before it is revealed by the author. This puts the author in a difficult position: if the solution is too easy to reach the reader will lose interest in the puzzle, but if it is too difficult then the reader feels cheated. Here is John Dickson Carr’s view:

 

"The author's job is not to advertise his book. His job is to write it. He must write it as well as he can; he must give the reader all the clues known to the detective; and he must try, if possible, to stun them with a thunderbolt surprise-ending. Admittedly, this is hard to do. Readers are very wary and sophisticated. But I venture to state, with some assurance, what a writer does not do.

 

 

"He does not toady to his readers. He is not Smiles's Self-Help. He does not smite his chest proudly with the recollection of what an ass he has made of himself in the very first chapter. On the contrary, he is there to befool, confuse, and bamboozle as many readers as he can. Even when he fails, he has run a noble course. His motto, in the best and most cordial sense of the term, should be: the public be damned.

 

Other authors attempted to lay down rules for fair play. Ronald Knox, a Catholic priest, in 1928 proposed the following ‘Ten Commandments of Detection’, which have survived long after his books have been forgotten:

 

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

8. The detective is bound to declare any clues upon which he may happen to light.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

 

Seventy years later the only rule that requires updating is Number 5: for ‘Chinaman’ we should perhaps read ‘espionage agents and members of organised crime syndicates’. I would also like to add an uncanonical Eleventh Commandment: ‘No otherwise blameless character will spontaneously decide to commit blackmail.’

 

Needless to say, many good mysteries have been constructed in which these rules are broken; but also immensely large numbers of bad ones. In evaluating books from these early years, in fact, it’s important to remember that those which survive are usually the best of the best, and vast numbers of undistinguished and just plain bad books have largely disappeared from view. If you do come across some of these, then by all means read them – their awfulness will give you a heightened appreciation of just how good the good writers were. Compare the young Agatha Christie, for instance, with her mentor Eden Phillpotts, whose The Grey Room is overlong, stilted, and utterly violates Knox’s rules one and four.

 

Anthony Berkeley

 

The doyen of detective writers in the late 1920s and early 1930s was Anthony Berkeley. He was not a prolific writer, producing perhaps a dozen books under his own name and three rather gloomy inverted mysteries under the name Francis Iles. His books are uneven and occasionally grisly, but he did produce one masterpiece, The Poisoned Chocolates Case from 1928, which topped the poll at a Golden Age mailing list vote for the greatest detective story ever written. It is particularly appropriate for this course since it concerns a discussion group. It is based on a short story called ‘The Avenging Chance’ which stops short with the first ‘solution’ proposed in the book.

 

Berkeley’s main detective character is Roger Sheringham, a rather snobbish author who himself writes detective stories. (At roughly the same time Agatha Christie was introducing a detective-story-writer character, Ariadne Oliver, and Ellery Queen was doing the same in the USA. Having a detective-story writer as a detective allows an author to explain why a civilian should be so interested in crime, and to poke gentle fun at their own profession and their colleagues.) Sheringham is not a particularly likeable man, and Berkeley occasionally takes malicious fun in setting him up for a major failure. Ambrose Chitterwick, who eventually solves the case, also appears in other books besides this one.

 

Sheringham runs a Crimes Circle, a discussion group for those interested in crime. The members are himself; Mr Chitterwick; Alicia Dammers, a novelist; Sir Charles Wildman, a barrister; Mrs. Fielder Flemming, a playwright, and Percy Robinson, another detective novelist who writes under the name Morton Harrogate Bradley. They assemble to discuss crime and detection and to hear dissertations from a guest speaker, who when the novel opens happens to be Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard. Rather than simply hear a talk, this time, Sheringham decides, the group will put their collective talents to work solving a real case which the police have given up on. This is the death of Mrs. Joan Bendix by nitro-benzine poisoning after eating some chocolates from a box presented to her by her husband Graham.

 

At the Crimes Circle’s first meeting Inspector Moresby presents the facts as they are known to the police, and the questions that have yet to be answered. Their preliminary version of the facts goes like this:

The chocolates were ostensibly a gift from a chocolate manufacturer trying out new lines. They were sent with a covering letter to Sir Eustace Pennefather, a chocolate-hater, who passed them on to Bendix at their club. Bendix took them home to his wife: there he ate several while she ate more. Mr. Bendix, who went out to an appointment, was taken ill within an hour and collapsed – again, at his club. Meanwhile, at home, his wife was feeling extremely sick; she retired to bed, sent the maid for a doctor and lapsed into a coma from which she died. She had eaten seven chocolates; her husband ate two.

 

Mr. Bendix recovers with the aid of prompt doctoring, and the police are called in. They are able to find the covering letter and the wrapping-paper that had covered the box, and to recover the box with the remaining chocolates from the Bendix house. Examination of the top layer of chocolates reveals lethal doses of nitrobenzene, a compound sometimes used in tiny amounts for flavouring but more often associated with dye-making. Moreover, the chocolates in the top layer have been drilled into at the base, indicating the poison was added to them after manufacture, probably with a fountain-pen filler – another long-gone device.

 

The chocolate manufacturer, Mason and Sons, denies any involvement; they are not trying any new lines and the accompanying letter has been forged on an old piece of their stationery. There are no further clues, and the police, says Chief Inspector Moresby, have reached a dead end. Their assumption is that Sir Eustace was the intended victim, but as something of a rake he has accumulated many potential enemies.

 

The Crimes Circle discuss the case after Moresby’s departure and agree to each pursue their own investigations; meanwhile they pool what other knowledge they have. As it happens, several of the members are acquainted with Sir Eustace or the Bendixes. Bit by bit, the secrets begin to emerge. The members of the Crimes Circle agree to carry out their investigations for a week. Each night of the following week they will meet again, and one of them will report his or her progress and the conclusions reached.

 

Meanwhile Moresby is dealing privately with Sheringham, revealing why he has allowed the Crimes Circle to become involved. Sir Eustace is, after all, a baronet, and ‘It's not easy for us (the police) to make enquiries into the private life of a baronet.’ Class is rearing its head again.

 

None of the characters in this book are particularly attractive. Moresby is manipulative, Sheringham arrogant, Chitterwick diffident, Bradley waspish. Sir Charles Wildman is depicted with masterful irony: ‘There was no one at the bar who could so convincingly distort an honest but awkward fact into carrying an entirely different interpretation from that which any ordinary person (counsel for the prosecution, for instance) would have put upon it…If that failed he was quite prepared to weep at it in open court… The number of murderers whom Sir Charles in the course of his career had saved from the gallows, if placed one on top of the other, would have reached to a very great height indeed..’

 

Sir Charles makes the first report, delivered in weighty legal terms, describing the evidence he has gathered through employing private enquiry agents. After a digression concerning the law on slander, he names his choice of murderer, commenting on the similarities between this case and another one. Unfortunately for him, Sir Charles’ theory is torn to pieces, and ultimately exploded via the private knowledge of another circle member. The group are left back where they started from.

 

The same thing happens night after night. Each investigator uses their own methods; inductive, intuitive, psychological, deductive. Each night the situation is seen to be reminiscent of another, different, murder case elsewhere. Each report appears at first to conclusively incriminate another suspect. But the next night that suspect is shown to be in the clear. The progress, however, is not circular but spiral, as one by one the suspects are eliminated and the case gradually gets closer and closer to home.

 

This is a pointillist approach to mystery; instead of a linear story, we have a repeated going-over of the same ground, each time adding a little more detail. In the process, a picture emerges; but it may look quite different to the first or second layer of dots. What began as an amusing intellectual exercise begins to have frightening emotional implications.

 

Meanwhile for the reader there is a good deal of fun in the byplay between the Circle members. Mr Chitterwick endeavours to recall the principles of real detection, but all he can remember is that ‘a real, real detective, if he means to attain results, never puts on a false moustache but simply shaves his eyebrows’. Miss Dammers makes some pungent comments on the distinctions between real and detective-story evidence:

 

“You state a thing so emphatically that the reader does not think of questioning the assertion. 'Here,' says the detective, 'is a bottle of red liquid and here is a bottle of blue. If these two liquids turn out to be ink, then we know that they were purchased to fill up the empty ink - pots in the library as surely as if we had read the dead man's very thoughts.' Whereas the red ink might have been bought by one of the maids to dye a jumper, and the blue by the secretary for his fountain - pen; or a hundred other such explanations. But any possibilities of that kind are silently ignored. Isn't that so?"

 

The naïve use of probability comes in for a serve: Mr. Bradley archly uses it to convict himself, claiming he must have committed the murder in a moment of amnesia, but his estimates of probability are soon shown to be wildly inaccurate.

 

Even Mr. Chitterwick has a thing or two to say:

 

"I have often noticed… that in books of that kind it is frequently assumed that any given fact can admit of only one single deduction, and that invariably the right one. Nobody else is capable of drawing any deductions at all but the author's favourite detective, and the ones he draws (in the books where the detective is capable of drawing deductions at all which, alas, are only too few) are invariably right.”

 

And class, of course, is an issue: ‘Mr. Bradley… disliked both Roger and Sir Charles. He disliked Roger the more of the two because Roger was a gentleman and pretended not to be, whereas he himself was not a gentleman and pretended he was. And that surely is cause enough to dislike any one.’ It is Mr. Bradley who rules out a public (i.e. private) school graduate as a potential murderer: such a person ‘would never murder a man behind his back, so to speak’.

 

Mrs. Fielder-Flemming adopts a time-honoured practice for her investigation; she questions the servants. Maids, butlers and valets play an important part in classic detective fiction; here they are sources of information, but in many other stories they take an active role as victims, blackmailers and occasionally murderers (though the actual occasions on which ‘the butler did it’ are few and far between). It is difficult for us to grasp just how all-pervasive the servant class was in Britain and (to a lesser extent) America before 1935; every middle-class couple would expect to have at least one full-time live-in servant, and a large family might run to a dozen or so in town and twenty or more for a place in the country. By 1940, rising wages and the recruitment of troops and factory workers for the Second World War had made professional servants virtually obsolete, and most of Britain’s middle- and upper-classes were marooned like shipwrecked sailors in houses that were far too big for them to maintain or even fully occupy. Some of this sense of loneliness and abandonment can be seen in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple; in her later appearances she and her contemporaries spend a lot of time mourning the passing of those between-war days.

 

There are more private interludes between Sheringham and Moresby, and details of Roger’s own investigative efforts. Soon he, too, has a personal stake in the investigation. He visits the Anglo-Eastern Perfumery Company, and succeeds at length in extracting some information from the receptionist; he traces the acquisition of the notepaper on which the covering letter was written; he finds the shop which sold the typewriter that wrote it. Like Thorndyke, he has astonishing luck in being at the right place at the right time. He delivers his solution with a smug feeling of unassailability.

 

Then it is Miss Dammers’ turn; her report, crisply delivered, shows up Sheringham’s witnesses and collapses his case. She reveals further secrets, not just about the suspects, and comes up with what appears to be an airtight solution.

 

But in the end it is poor diffident Mr. Chitterwick who reveals the truth. Chitterwick even has a chart of the kind beloved by detective story writers, tabulating each suspect and their salient features. He keeps us in suspense for a long time, but his ending, when it comes, is totally unexpected and well worth the wait. Moreover, it presents the Crimes Circle with an awful dilemma of its own.

 

This is the kind of ‘thunderbolt surprise ending’ Carr wrote about; but it is not – as some writers seem to think – enough for it to merely be a surprise. It must be the kind of surprise that ties up all the loose ends, answers all the puzzling questions raised throughout the book, and utterly convinces the reader. The required reaction is not “How on earth - ?” but “Of course!” – and Berkeley achieves this brilliantly.

 

Jon.

 

See also: http://apenguinaweek.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/penguin-no-58-poisoned-chocolates-case.html

 

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