Title: The Poisoned Chocolates Case
Author: Anthony Berkeley
Series: Roger Sheringham Cases #5
Graham and Joan Bendix have apparently succeeded in making that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage. And into the middle of it there drops, like a clap of thunder, a box of chocolates. Joan Bendix is killed by a poisoned box of liqueur chocolates that cannot have been intended for her to eat. The police investigation rapidly reaches a dead end. Chief Inspector Moresby calls on Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle – six amateur but intrepid detectives – to consider the case. The evidence is laid before the Circle and the members take it in turn to offer a solution. Each is more convincing than the last, slowly filling in the pieces of the puzzle, until the dazzling conclusion. This new edition includes an alternative ending by the Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, as well as a brand new solution devised specially for the British Library by the crime novelist and Golden Age expert Martin Edwards.
You know how at the end of the book Hercule Poirot talks about the skeletons in everybody’s closet? Often enough he will also destroy the seemingly waterproof alibi of one person along with it and when they start protesting Poirot just shrugs and says “Oh, of course, you didn’t do it. You only needed that false alibi because you were visiting your mistress/brother in jail/divorce lawyer. But you deserve that shock for trying to fool me.” before he continues with the next person with skeletons and seemingly waterproof alibi.
Imagine that but for a whole book.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case opens when the murder has already been committed. The six amateur detectives decide to look at the case themselves and do some sleuthing – off-screen. Then the first three present their cases but at the end of each presentation somebody points out a fact that has escaped the speaker and makes his or her theory fall apart.
Then Roger Sheringham does some sleuthing – on-screen this time but also in a way that is typical for mysteries in that the reader doesn’t get much out of it: we see that Sheringham goes round showing certain people a photograph but don’t know whose photograph that is. He’s the next to present his case but it turns out he has also missed something. So it’s on to the next presenter…and then the next.
Now, the idea to write such a mystery is undoubtedly brilliant but the thing is: I don’t deny that the ‘library scene’ with all the suspects together and all the skeletons falling out belongs to a proper golden-age mystery and I’m not saying I dislike them but I really only need one per book. I already find it tedious if it gets dragged out for too long and a book that only consists of these scenes is also…well tedious.
The other thing is the way the wrong solutions are dealt with. The solutions in the first half are the kind of solutions bad mystery writers would come up with. And the characters in the book call them out as such and say that, for example, Sir Charles simply took a few coincidences and claimed that it was impossible that they weren’t connected to the murder without backing that claim up. That kind of lampshade-hanging is fun and I always appreciate it when writers don’t take the genre they write 100% serious all the time.
But the wrong solutions of the second half are actually good mystery solutions. In the introduction, Martin Edwards even mentions that there is a Sheringham short-story in which his solutions is the correct one, only in the novel he gets proven wrong. And the way the other characters react to the wrong solutions? A kind of condescending ‘Oh real life isn’t like mysteries’-attitude.
Newsflash: I know that neither mysteries nor more ‘serious’ police procedurals portray a 100% realistic picture of a murder investigation. If they did cops in books and movies would have to deal with a lot more domestic violence and quarrels between neighbours instead of cunning serial killers who are always three steps ahead of them or classically educated murderers who are inspired by Jacobean Revenge Tragedies. They also would have to do a lot more paperwork (and Agatha Christie would have been only allowed to write about 10 books because the actual murder-rate in small English villages wasn’t that high). Nobody wants to read truly 100% realistic crime novels…and if genre-books get too smug about being not like those other genre books I get annoyed. Especially when the true solution ends up involving just as many twists and turns as any other mystery.
There are also two alternate endings to the novel. One written not long after the original book, one by Martin Edwards especially for this new edition and they are…nice. They fit the tone of the book and I don’t think I would have noticed if either of them had followed the book without a note about the fact that it was done by a different author. They were fun but also not particularly impressive. (They don’t use the already known facts and twist them in a new way, they introduce new ones. Which is exactly what was done with all the ‘real’ solutions so I’m not saying they should have. But simply being able to imitate a style does not awe me so much that I’m convinced this was a necessary gimmick).
I am also reading this for Kill Your Darlings and use it to play the Ariadne Oliver-card (book is set in the UK)