June 1, 2015
Classic detective fiction is so tedious. It’s all the same formula, over and over again, and then the Bad Guy gets captured, the world returns to Sunny Delight, and it’s all crumpets and plum jam for tea.
Not so fast. In the first place, O Beloved Hard-Boiled Fan, your own corner of the mystery world is rich in its own formulas, from the man of honor forced to walk the mean streets to the faithless broad and the bottle of Scotch in the drawer. And in the second place, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
First published in 1929, it came out during the heyday of the Golden Age, when that formula – the erudite, upper-class sleuth who views murder as a game, the comical members of the lower orders, the over-arching assumption that all will be returned to blissful order as soon as the one bad actor has been apprehended – did indeed dominate the genre. But Anthony Berkeley Cox (who also wrote as Francis Iles) was a smart fella, and with Poisoned Chocolates he both bows to the formula and sticks a (very polite) thumb in its eye.
Here for example is the upper-class milieu: A meeting of the ultra-exclusive Crime Circle, a group of (never more than) six toffs united in their belief that murder is the jolliest puzzle of all. And at their center is their newest member, Roger Sheringham, who has persuaded his friend Chief Inspector Moresby to present the Circle with the outline of an unsolved case. In a week’s time, Sheringham suggests, they will reconvene, and each member will explain how he or she would solve the case in question.
A week later, and all the members have indeed solved the case. The only problem: Each of them has fingered a different killer. The great fun in this novel lies in allowing oneself to be persuaded by a given theory, only to see that theory comprehensively demolished, and another set in its place. While The Poisoned Chocolates Case would indeed be a clever diversion for any reader, it will perhaps best be appreciated by fans of classic crime fiction, who know – and love – the books that Berkeley was so deftly satirizing.