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?

 

 

Ronald Knox: The Short Stories (1931-1947)

Priest, theologian, classicist, translator, tutor, chaplain at Oxford university and detective fiction writer, Ronald Knox like many of the early detective novelists had an eclectic and rich background and output.

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Knox was an avid writer and reader of detective fiction, and wrote many essays on the subject. He was also one of the original members of the Detection Club alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers, G.K Chesterton and many other prominent and important novelists, started by Anthony Berkeley. Knox compiled a list called the Ten Commandments For Detective Novelists , a set of laws for the club, which the other members went on to joyfully break. The Detection Club also collaborated on a series of three novels, in which each member would write a chapter, Knox contributed to three of these titles.

The priest come novelist also wrote works in numerous areas including essay collections and theological texts. Amongst these were many satirical essays, and his detective novels are frequently satirical in nature. William Reynolds writes in his book The Detective Novels of Ronald A.Knox (1981): “Knox’s satire is directed against persons, institutions, or habits of thought whose principles the modern world accepts most uncritically … he is taking aim at pretensions, substitutions of show for substance.” This is a perfect grasp of satire, and in the vein of making the mighty look humble, a very biblical form of satire also. 

Knox wrote 6 detective novels in total, and also published three short stories. Published at important points in his writing career, these three shorts are all marvellous and perfectly represent the different aspects of Knox’s detective fiction works and impact. So by way of introduction to Knox’s work I will discuss these three brilliant shorts.

Solved By Inspection – 1931
Knox’s first short story showcases his series detective Miles Bredon, who appears in 5 of his novels. Bredon is employed by the ‘Indescribable Insurance Company’ to investigate suspicious claims made by it’s clientele. This is simply one of my favourite short detective works and shows that Knox was a deft hand with the locked room mystery format, creating a very original entry into the cannon. Eccentric millionaire, and darling to the press Herbert Jervison, after a trip to India, has become obsessed with astral projection, meditation and psychic experiments, now calling himself The Brotherhood of Light. Locking himself into what he calls his laboratory, an old gym and racket court, he takes two weeks worth of supplies and says he must not be disturbed on any account. However, when he doesn’t emerge after the two weeks is up, the door is broken down and he is found dead in his bed. But stranger still Jervison has died of starvation, the food all around him being completely untouched. 

The solution is extremely clever, simple and terrifically dark. One that lingers in the mind for some time. I have this story in a collection called The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig, which is a collection of shorts that I highly recommend.

The Motive – 1937
Knox also wrote stand alone detective works, and The Motive is a top example. A satirical work no doubt, this short is set in the common rooms of Simon Magus college, a mythical college that Knox used as a way of exploring and satirising the culture of university don’s. Here the story is told by the infamous lawyer Sir Leonard Huntercombe, a man who was ‘probably responsible for more scoundrels being at large than any other man in England’. Huntercombe waxes lyrical, (mainly to stop another don from talking), on a strange set of crimes that almost took him to court.

These two crimes concern firstly a brutal murder attempt, where a young, proud man is challenged late at night to swim 10 lengths of the hotel swimming pool blindfolded. As he does this the swimming pool is slowly drained, enough that he cannot reach to get out, and once his he removes his blindfold he realises that he has been left to lose energy trying to keep afloat which will eventually cause him drown through fatigue. The pool could then be refilled and we have a perfect murder.

But this is unsuccessful and what follows is a very nicely conceived impossible disappearance from a locked and watched train carriage, with a killer solution. The ending of the story is hilarious and totally unexpected, perfectly summing up Knox’s satirical aims.

This story also happens to have been published in the heavily debated Golden Age sweet spot of 1937, which allows me to submit this post for the 1937 edition of Crimes of the Century at the brilliant Past Offences.

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The man himself

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage – 1947
Another aspect of Knox’s oeuvre was his knowledge of the Sherlock works and his input into the world of ‘Sherlockian studies’ or ‘Sherlockiana’.  This he started in a book called Essays in Satire (1928) where he published a satirical essay called “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”. This and following writings were a series of mock-serious critical and historical writings on Sherlock Holmes, where the writer assumes that Sherlock Holmes is a real figure, and uses historical information to build up biographies and clear up anomalies is the Doyle stories. It’s a fascinating form of writing and worth looking up. 

As a fan then of Sherlock the last short story Knox published doesn’t come as surprise. The Adventure of the First Class Carriage is a Sherlock tale, written in homage to Doyle’s inimitable style in which Watson reflects on the case of the disappearance of Mr Nathaniel Swithinbank. The Swithinbank’s maid, Mrs Hennessy, has made a secret trip to Baker street to discuss strange goings on at the manor house. Arguments, tensions between husbands and wife and a ripped up suicide note with a strange fragment pointing to a specific point in the reeds near the house ‘where the old tower hides both the first and the second floor windows.

What Sherlock is so surprised at is how the clues to this mystery seem so obvious and therefore backwards – why leave a suicide note in the bin where it would be easily found?. The whole reason for the case is another brilliant subversion and ends with Sherlock uttering the latin phrase ‘sic vos non vobis’, which closes the story very nicely, seeing that the work in itself is a homage to the great detective and to Doyle’s work. There is love for Doyle here, and also, a very sly thread of comic parody going on, terms like ‘she dived her hand into a capacious reticule’  being charmingly witty whilst playing with the Watsonian language.

There will be a lecture given this year on Knox’s work at the Bodies From The Library conference at the British Library in June, which I much look forward to. I would be very interested to know if anyone has read any of the Knox novels? And what would you recommend?

Updates:

Golden age expert Martin Edwards very helpfully commented that:

(Knox’s) Ten Commandments were not the laws of the Club. They were included in an essay that prefaced an anthology. Some elements of the Decalogue were, however, introduced into the Club’s initiation ritual, which was primarily drafted by Dorothy L. Sayers.