The Poisoned Chocolates Case

The Poisoned Chocolates Case
Anthony Berkeley
First published in the UK 1929
This edition 1986,  Penguin Books
ISBN: 0140081615
254 pages
Score 3/5

This was the another of Mrs Offence’s selections. Only two more to go.

The irascible Sir Eustace Pennefather is sent a box of Mason’s Liqueur Chocolates as a promotional gift by the manufacturer. Scorning such a gift (‘Do they think I’m a blasted chorus-girl, to write ’em testimonials about their blasted chocolates?’), he hands them to fellow club-member Graham Bendix, who takes them home to his wife. Bendix and wife both sample the chocolates, finding them very strong and (if they had read any detective novels) suspiciously almond-scented. A few hours later, Mrs Bendix is dead and Bendix very ill.

The police are stumped. The chocolates did not come from the manufacturer but were posted anonymously from a Post Office in the Strand. The headed paper was genuine but was old stock. Pennefather claims nobody would want him dead and the obvious suspect, his estranged wife, is out of the country. The police are unable to effectively investigate Pennefather’s private life. Their only theory is that this was the work of a religious maniac outraged by the baronet’s notorious lifestyle. ‘Women. And he drinks too much.’

Scotland Yard agrees to allow six armchair criminologists (Sheringham’s ‘Crimes Circle’) to investigate the case. They are given one week to see what they can come up with.

The Crimes Circle are:

  • Roger Sheringham, Berkeley’s series character. According to a brief description at detectivefiction.com, Sheringham was, ‘founded on an offensive person I once knew because, in rny original innocence, I thought it would be amusing to have an offensive detective. Since he has been taken in all seriousness, I have had to tone his offensiveness down and pretend he never was.’
  • Pompous defence barrister Sir Charles Wildman KC
  • Mrs Fielder Flemming, over-dramatic dramatist
  • Morton Harrogate Bradley, the crime novelist, originally known as Percy Robinson
  • Miss Alicia Dammers, a modern novelist
  • And finally, ‘Mr Ambrose Chitterwick, who was not famous at all, a mild little man of no particular appearance who had been even more surprised at being admitted to this company of personages than they had been at finding him amongst them.’

Little love is lost between the members of the Club, who delight in scoring points off each other. Much of the fun in this book comes from the one-liners.

‘“But I’m getting on rather too fast. I had better complete my destruction of Mr. Sheringham’s case before I build up my own.” Roger groaned faintly and looked up at the hard, white ceiling. it reminded him of Miss Dammers, and he looked down again.’

In turn, each of the sleuths presents their case to the others, only to see it destroyed. In the process everyone connected with the investigation is accused, with one member even building a watertight case against himself. Unfortunately, the constant twists as new evidence is revealed weaken the final resolution. One feels the finger of suspicion could have come to rest anywhere.

This is a light read which plays with the conventions of the ‘fair play’ detective novel.  I suspect its lasting fame has more to do with the originality of its approach than its quality as a book, but it is an amiable way to pass an afternoon.

Final destination: Green Metropolis (SOLD, 1/8/12)

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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9 Responses to The Poisoned Chocolates Case

  1. Rich – Thanks for the fine review. Thanks for highlighting the one-liners (always something I notice; I suppose it’s the linguist in me). I know what you mean too about originality of approach. It may not entirely make up for a less-than-top-of-the-heap novel, but I always give credit to authors who try new things.

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  2. One of my favourite Golden Age stories – clever and funny. Good to see this review.

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  3. This book is a real favourite of mine and I remeber finishing with great delight at its cleverbesss and humour. If you get the chance, you might enjoy ‘The Avenging Chance’, the short story on which the novel is based.

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  5. naveen reddy says:

    Yes, I read the short story ‘The Avenging Chance’ (as pointed by Cavershamragu)in the book The Oxford Anthology of English detective Stories. The story blew me away and was one of the good ones in the book.

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