Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolates Case

31678146Title: 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.

RatingB-

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)

251bad8f80055385c41249e044bd7da6

Ray Celestin: The Axeman’s Jazz

20727758Title: The Axeman’s Jazz
Author: Ray Celestin
Series: City Blues Quartet #1

New Orleans, 1919. As a dark serial killer – The Axeman – stalks the city, three individuals set out to unmask him…

Though every citizen of the ‘Big Easy’ thinks they know who could be behind the terrifying murders, Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, heading up the official investigation, is struggling to find leads. But Michael has a grave secret – and if he doesn’t find himself on the right track fast – it could be exposed…

Former detective Luca d’Andrea has spent the last six years in Angola state penitentiary, after Michael, his protégée, blew the whistle on his corrupt behaviour. Now a newly freed man, Luca finds himself working with the mafia, whose need to solve the mystery of the Axeman is every bit as urgent as the authorities’.

Meanwhile, Ida is a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency.Obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and dreaming of a better life, Ida stumbles across a clue which lures her and her trumpet-playing friend, Lewis ‘Louis’ Armstrong, to the case and into terrible danger…

As Michael, Luca and Ida each draw closer to discovering the killer’s identity, the Axeman himself will issue a challenge to the people of New Orleans: play jazz or risk becoming the next victim. And as the case builds to its crescendo, the sky will darken and a great storm will loom over the city…

Rating:E

Note: I read the German translation of this book. The German review can be found on my Goodreads account

The Axeman of New Orleans is a fascinating unsolved murder case that offers much room for speculation (there is just one suspect and it’s not entirely certain if he really existed) and an appropriately creepy letter that was sent to the newspaper. The sender claims to be the Axeman and says he won’t kill anybody the following Tuesday provided there’s Jazz playing in their house. There are no murders that night but they continue later, only to stop again completely a few months later. This is a story that cries out for a novel and I was excited to see how the author would work this case in his story.

The answer is: not at all, really. The book starts with the murders of  Joseph and Catherine Maggio and we learn that they aren’t the first victims. There were others before them that were also killed with an ax. Tarot cards were left at every crime-scene and the Maggios had much more money in their home than you would expect from a couple of simple grocers.

In reality, the Maggios were the Axeman’s first victims. There were no Tarot cards and also no money. That fact-resistance continues: the non-deadly attack on Anna Schneider turns into a deadly attack on her and her husband. Joseph Romano suddenly has a wife and was murdered before the Maggios…these aren’t just small artistic licenses that one needs to take if they want to turn fact into exciting fiction. Instead, it makes me wonder why the author didn’t just invent a completely fictitious case if all he keeps are some names and the murder weapon.

The reason might be the Axeman’s letter. Celestine is so fond of it that it is printed twice in full length in the book. Or perhaps ‘Axeman’ on the cover is supposed to take in true crime-obsessed idiots like me.

Now even if you ignore that the author rather drags the name of people through the mud who were slaughtered less than 100 years ago (because in the book, none of the victims were innocent) than to simply make up a serial killer named The Butcher of Baton Rouge:

The book is bad.

None of the characters has any depth. They all come from completely different worlds (a corrupt Italian cop, a clean Irish one, Lewis Armstrong – yes, that one – his light-skinned mixed-race female friend and an opium-addicted journalist) but there’s barely any difference between them on-page. They stumble around, smoke, ask questions, smoke more, get beaten up, intimidated and locked up (by criminal masterminds that the whole underworld fears but who forget that there is still a set of hunting knives in the room they just locked them in), smoke even more and show no personality at all.

More than once I had to leaf back to check who the POV-character of the current chapter is. Everything sounds the same and even the long Jazz night reads as exciting and colourful as watching white paint dry. Additionally, in the first half, the plot gets constantly interrupted by flashbacks to things that happened to the characters before the start of the book. There were so frequent that I began wondering if the author wouldn’t have preferred to tell that story instead. Then, towards the end, there are some twists that are only surprising if you’ve never been in the same room with a crime-novel.

German ARC received from NetGalley