Anthony Berkeley (real name: Anthony Berkeley Cox) was an English crime fiction writer member of the Detection Club, a group of British mystery writers founded in 1930.
Berkeley was one of the founding members of the Detection Club, along with other famous crime writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. The club was formed as a way for mystery writers to come together and discuss their craft, as well as to promote the genre and establish ethical standards for detective fiction.
Berkeley was known for his unconventional approach to crime writing. He often challenged the conventions of the genre and experimented with narrative structure and point of view. His most famous work is The Poisoned Chocolates Case, considered a classic of the Golden Age of detective fiction.
As a member of the Detection Club, Berkeley participated in the club’s famous “Dinner Game,” in which members would take turns presenting a fictional crime scenario and challenging the other members to solve it. The game was intended to encourage creative thinking and innovation in the genre, and it became a tradition carried on by the club for many years. You will see many parallels to Berkeley’s time in the Detection Club in The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case begins with a fictionalized version of The Detection Club, called “The Crime Circle,” discussing the recent unsolved murder of Joan Bendix and the poisoning of her husband, Graham Bendix, with a box of poisoned chocolates.
Graham Bendix was given a box of chocolate liqueur candies from his boss after they had been gifted to him so he would review them for the manufacturer. (Yum! Any candy manufacturers reading this post can send me a box of cholates to review) Not much of a fan of sweets, he passed the box to Graham Bendix, who needed to buy a box of candy for his wife Joan, as penance for losing a bet.
Graham Bendix brings the chocolates home, and he and his wife share the box of candy, with him only having a few pieces and at least six. While eating the chocolates, they both complain that the liqueur flavors, which are supposed to be different, all taste like bitter almonds. The chocolates burn their mouths and are very strong; Graham decides he doesn’t care for them and leaves the rest to Joan, who eats a few more to decide if she likes them.
Graham leaves his home for his private club and soon has violent stomach pains, but they pass. While at his private club, the pains begin again, and he is stricken with vomiting; his fellow club member sends for a doctor when Graham Bendix has a seizure. He is rushed to the hospital for medical care. One of his fellow club members calls Bendix’s house to inform Joan, but when he speaks to the butler, he is told that Mrs. Bendix, who was alone, suffered the same symptoms and died.
With Scotland Yard baffled, amateur detective Roger Sheringham invites the detective leading the investigation to debrief the Crime Circle on the finer points of the case and see if they have any new or plausible theories to help solve it.
The Crime Circle made chiefly of famous detective writers of 1920s England, is unsure what to make of Roger Sheringham’s suggestion of helping the police with a real-life murder. They are not detectives and don’t have any way of gathering information like the police. Sheringham says they can play detective if they wish, but maybe answers could be derived from reasoning the clues. This is met with further objections about using deductive or objective reasoning. Sheringham, somewhat exasperated, says it doesn’t matter. They agree to Sheringham’s suggestion to solve the Poisoned Chocolates Case, with each writer proposing a theory weekly and the others voicing their assent or objections. The members would then vote on the idea if they think it is the correct solution and send it to the police.
So then begins the weekly delivery of each theory, and week after week, new motives are found and dismissed, ranging from Joan Bendix being killed by her husband, to Joan Bendix is killed by her lover, Graham Bendix’s boss, to a member of the crime circle killing her, and everything in between. It’s a great exploration of how clues without context, or understanding motives, can be construed to mean almost anything. This is especially true for crime writers who want twists and turns to make a good story. Crime writers are not necessarily good crime solvers. Motivations behind actual crimes are much more trivial or mundane than in books. Don’t believe me? Watch The First 48 or Forensic Files, and after a while, you’ll realize that most crimes are born of greed, hate, or lack of care for human life.
In any case, the authors go round and round until they are convinced by the new solution every week. It’s a dizzying display of gotcha’s and reverses after reverse, unknown motives obliterating the old. When I started the book, I thought Roger Sheringham would swoop in at the end with the “correct solution” and solve the crime. Still, he gives his solution in the middle of the book-it’s a perfect solution- and it is systematically dismantled.
The genius- and possible flaw- is the amount of information, even the characters in the book remark that they are having trouble keeping track of who is doing what and why. Many are furiously taking notes and trying to keep “the facts straight”. The Poisoned Chocolates box is a lot and if you’re not paying attention you might get lost. To help keep everything straight, learn for my mistake- don’t attempt to read this via audiobook.
My only real complaint about The Poisoned Chocolates Case is that while each character presents a new solution or a new way of looking at things, the mechanics of how they are were discovered or revealed are repetitive. Unlike books written by The Detection Club, where multiple authors tackle the same idea from different points of view, Anthony Berkeley is one man, and he never really writes anything from a different voice, point of view, or slant. It is not noticeable at the start, but five solutions in, it’s something unavoidable.
That’s why I highly recommend that you pick up the version by The British Library Crime Classics if you want to read The Poisoned Chocolates Case. It includes a solution provided by Christiana Brand that busts the never-ending loop of solutions wide open. Brand’s voice and point of view are strikingly different from Anthony Sherigham’s endless re-configuring of clues that it is a needed breath of fresh air and furthers Berkeley’s desire to write a book in the vein of the Detection Club. I think his exercise is fatiguing because writing w book supposedly composed from different points of view, but all from the same author, cannot be faked. The types of clues, the voice, and the manner of a particular author are too strong to change that much.
Martin Edwards, the editor of the British Library Crime Classics reprint, takes up the mantle of Christianna Brand’s solution beautifully and bookends the story with a traditional ending. It’s a lovely reminder that all writers take up the works before them and respond to the conversation built over hundreds of years to lend their unique voice. Martin Edwards, who most readers will know from his funny and insightful introductions, is also recontextualized for many readers as an exceptional crime writer in his own right. The Poisoned Chocolates Case is a masterwork, and I highly recommend reading the British Library Crime Classics reprint of this once-forgotten gem. You can get a copy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case from Amazon here.