Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) – On Crime, Subversion and Detectives Telling Us What to Think.

As a lover of detective fiction, and a growing hoarder of books, it became obvious after reading many great comments and reviews of the Poisoned Chocolates Case that I should really have read this by now.

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So when on another of my London second hand book shop walks I came across the new British Library Crime Classics edition (complete with alternative endings by both Christiana Brand, and Martin Edwards, plus Edwards’ brilliant foreword) I decided to dive straight in. To put it simply, this book really is brilliant, and totally lives up to it’s reputation. It’s genre defining, subverting and attacking, and is well worth your time.

The book has at the helm the motley crew known as ‘The Crimes Circle’. This group was the fictional forerunner to the very real Detection Club, which Berkeley started in 1930, whereby he invited crime fiction writers to discuss real life and fictional crime over lunch, thereby challenging a developing the genre. This group contained names as big as Christie, Chesterton, Carr and Knox and runs to this day.

In the The Poisoned Chocolates Case the fictional Crimes Circle is tasked with trying to crack the tragic unsolved murder of Mrs. Joan Bendix, killed by a box of poisoned chocolates. After a presentation from Chief Inspector Moresby of the facts so far, the Circle agrees that they will each have a week in which to work on the case, and then present their findings. The rest of the book therefore is almost entirely made up of alternative solutions to the same crime. 7 set’s of deductions and with 7 different endings. With a fast paced movement from case to case, each presentation is more shocking than the last, and builds in unexpected and hilarious ways. The final denouement is a smash ending, with subtle ambiguity rippling through the whole affair.

Another reason that this is an important work is that is was written as early as 1929. To be subverting the genre this much at this point in time was no mean feat.

As there are so many write ups of this title I don’t want to review it generally as it would be easy to read more elsewhere. So I want to try and take things a little deeper. I am going to pull out a few brilliant examples of how Berkeley used this work to challenge and subvert what had come before, which have served to challenge and develop my own reading and writing of detective fiction:

The Proclaiming Detective: 

“…Invariably, Mr. Bradley. I’ve often noticed it in your own books. You state a thing so emphatically that the reader does not think of questioning the assertion. ‘Here,’ says the detective, ‘is a bottle of red liquid and here is a bottle of blue. If these two liquids turn out to be ink, then we know that they were purchased to fill up the empty ink pots in the library as surely as if we had read the dead man’s very thoughts.’ Whereas the red ink might have been bought by one of the maids to dye a jumper, and the blue by the secretary for his fountain pen; or a hundred other such explanations. But any possibilities of that kind are silently ignored. Isn’t that so?”

“Perfectly,” agreed Bradley, unperturbed. “Don’t waste time on unessentials. Just tell the reader very loudly what he’s to think, and he’ll think it all right. You’ve got the technique perfectly, Why don’t you try your hand at it? It’s quite a paying game, you know.” (Chapter 6)

The idea of having a detective novelist (Mr. Bradley) in the list of characters trying to solve the case was a stroke of genius from Berkeley. This allowed him to go head-on against the earliest tropes of detective fiction that, as Martin Edward’s comments, Berkeley saw as ‘highly contrived, and…seldom stood up to close scrutiny’. This paragraph I have quoted put into words many things I had noticed in bad crime fiction writing, and have now noticed more, further to reading it. Often this ‘telling the reader very loudly’ what to think comes through the mouth and guise of genius detectives. Those lording figures who cannot and shall not be questioned, and whose brilliance we are swept away by. Berkeley further sums this feeling up in a later passage where the mild mannered Mr. Chitterwick holds forth on the subject:

“I have often noticed… that in books of that kind it is frequently assumed that any given fact can admit of only one single deduction, and that invariably the right one. Nobody else is capable of drawing any deductions at all but the author’s favourite detective, and the ones he draws (in the books where the detective is capable of drawing deductions at all which, alas, are only too few) are invariably right.” (Chapter 17)

In my sketch comedy group Salt, we have written and performed a number of murder mystery comedy shows, and this has always been one of the hardest things to get right in plotting the piece. How not to let the detective just tell the audience ‘this is what happened’ while leaving open any other obvious ways for things to have gone. Or at the very least, how to be aware of it so as to parody it for comedic purpose.

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Murder is… Hilarious

In a particularly bad episode of Death In Paradise from the most recent series 6, our new detective DI Jack Mooney, makes an appalling statement as he makes his case to the killer (and I paraphrase): ‘But for her love wasn’t just love, it was passion, all or nothing, and that’s why she kept a lock of your hair, and that’s how we were able to identify your DNA and thats how… blah blah.” This idea of the victim being a passionate, almost manically in love woman was not really hinted at else where, and the clue just became a very flimsy tool for the detective to be able to get to the ending that was wanted. And we were just told that’s what it all meant, and of course expected to believe it.

It’s seems Christie understood and played with this in her work. A good example is a line I just came across in Death on the Nile, which I am reading in preparation for the up coming Carr/Christie head to head with fellow bloggers Brad and JJ. On being asked how Poirot knew a piece of information that no one had told him – not even the person who has the information themselves (who has been lying) – Poirot pipes up with: I am Hercule Poirot, I do not need to be told.’ It feels like Christie was self aware here, but wether or not that’s true is yet to be seen (comments appreciated). But Christie herself is no second rate detective writer, as her success has attested to. Another writer I can think of who works with this idea for comedic effect is Edmund Crispin, where there is a nice discussion about detective fiction form and ‘coincidence’ in The Moving Toy Shop.

The Only Deduction Possible:

“I told you nothing but the truth. But I didn’t tell you the whole truth. Artistic proof is, like artistic anything else, simply a matter of selection. If you know what to put in and what to leave out you can prove anything you like, quite conclusively. I do it in every book I write, and no reviewer has ever hauled me over the coals for slipshod argument yet. But then,” said Mr Bradley modestly, “I don’t suppose any reviewer has ever read one of my books.” (From Mr Bradley’s case chapter 11).

This quote and the others above show Berkeley’s views on matters of interpretation and deduction. I won’t spoil anything for you, but the findings Mr Bradley put’s forward are a brilliant subversion of the case and the genre of detective fiction, and look to play with the idea of arriving at the truth.

This idea of ‘proving anything you like’ is very much a ‘meta’ statement, as really that is the point of the book as a whole. Berkeley writes to show you that with the same 3-4 pieces of evidence that 7,8 or 9 different deductions (or stories really) can all be credibly created, which is what each of the characters do. So the challenge to the writer therefore is how to create a fiction that doesn’t fall into these traps of ‘silently ignoring’ other glaring possibilities for deduction. Or if it does fall into the traps, how to be aware of them and use them well. This again shows the difficulties in writing high quality clues, plots and using locations, objects and timings well, when everything possible thing is available for you to use, and therefore every possible deduction from those things is also at the disposal of the readers mind.

It’s meta-narrative also because it’s totally self aware. But Berkeley does it without the characters saying they are characters (as is another interesting meta-tool that writers like Carr and Crispin used), he does it instead with the whole form of the book itself. The Poisoned Chocolates Case then is a detective story, but in others way’s it’s like an essay on detective fiction, played and spoken out by this motley cast, all of which in some way represent tropes of the detective form in themselves.

I would be interested in hearing about more subversive works from this period, and I know Berkeley wrote more, compiling the earliest inverted mysteries (?), a form popular with crime writers today. What other genre breaking crime works have you read?