At a meeting of the Crimes Circle, convenor Roger Sheringham has a surprise for his fellow club members. He has invited Chief Inspector Moresby to outline the circumstances of an unsolved murder to the Circle with the idea that the members of the Circle do some investigating of their own. Scotland Yard have run out of ideas & are left with the unsatisfying theory that the murder was committed by a lunatic. Sheringham believes that, with the facts laid out as known by the police, the solution can be found & who better to put their minds to the task than the members of the Crimes Circle, six people who have passed the stringent conditions of membership.
Joan Bendix has been poisoned by liqueur chocolates laced with benzadrine, handed to her by her husband, Graham, who also fell ill after eating some of the sweets. However, it seems that Joan was not the intended victim. Graham had been given the chocolates at his club by Sir Eustace Pennefather. The box arrived in the post as a publicity stunt & Sir Eustace had been only too pleased to hand them on to Bendix who needed a box of chocolates for his wife in settlement of a bet they had made at the theatre the previous night. Sir Eustace is an unpleasant man with many enemies & it seems that Joan has been the victim of a tragic accident. The police have followed up the clues – the chocolates; the letter, written on the letterhead of the Mason’s, the confectioners; the wrapping paper – but every lead has become a dead end.
The members of the Circle – novelists Sheringham, Morton Harrogate Bradley & Alicia Dammers, QC Sir Charles Wildman, playwright Mrs Fielder-Flemming & Mr Ambrose Chitterick – take up the investigation with varying degrees of enthusiasm & confidence. Several of the group know the Bendixs & Sir Eustace. They sympathise with the Bendixs who seemed to be a very happy, prosperous couple. On the other hand, Sir Eustace was widely disliked, particularly for his predatory relationships with women. His wife was in the process of divorcing him & the circle of potential suspects for his murder would have been wide. The Circle have a week to formulate their theories & then they will reconvene to outline them & do their best to convince their fellows & Scotland Yard that they have cracked the case.
This is an immensely enjoyable & inventive story, rightly called one of the standout novels of the Golden Age of detective fiction. It began life as a short story & I may have read that at some stage as one of the theories sounded very familiar to me. Then again, it became such a famous book that I could have read another mystery using one of these ideas. Berkeley was certainly profligate with his ideas to use so many terrific plots in just one book because all the theories, as I was reading them, sounded more or less convincing. Even the outlining of the case so many times as each theory is explained didn’t pall because each person came to the case from a different angle & with such a range of motives from jealousy to gain to a lust for killing. The range of accused murderers also held some surprises with a final, satisfying twist as the murderer is revealed. I also enjoyed reading about the real-life cases that each member uses to reinforce his or her idea. This book really is a master class in writing sparkling fiction with humour & ingenuity.
This edition of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, reprinted as part of the immensely successful British Library Crime Classics series, also includes two additional solutions to the mystery. In the 1970s, Christianna Brand (best known for Green for Danger, one of my favourite mystery novels) wrote a new solution for a US edition of the novel. This is reprinted here for the first time along with yet another solution by Martin Edwards, consultant for the series & author of The Golden Age of Murder. Anthony Berkeley, who also published as Francis Iles, is probably the least well-known of the great Golden Age writers. He was a complicated man & Martin’s book is invaluable reading if you want to know more about him. Interestingly he had the idea for the Detection Club, a dining club for mystery writers that survives to this day, based on the Crimes Circle in this novel.
If you’re a fan of Golden Age mysteries, & haven’t yet read The Poisoned Chocolates Case, you’ve missed out on a treat. On a purely aesthetic level, the British Library have produced an attractive book with beautiful cover art based on a travel poster of the day. No wonder the Golden Age is popular again.