The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

Roger Sheringham’s Crime Club consists of six members who have passed a stringent test proving their crime solving expertise: “There was a famous lawyer, a scarcely less famous woman dramatist, a brilliant novelist who ought to have been more famous than she was, the most intelligent (if not the most amiable) of living detective-story writers, Roger Sheringham himself, and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, who was not famous at all, a mild little man of no particular appearance…”

The members are delighted when Sheringham proposes they attempt to solve the murder of Joan Bendix, who met her death after eating from a box of poisoned chocolates. It’s a case that has so far stumped the police. The members agree that they will, by whatever means they so choose, independently investigate and formulate a theory regarding the identity of murderer. One week later, over six successive nights, each member present their theories. As the members take turns presenting, it becomes clear that none of their solutions agree. Each quickly invalidates the work of the previous investigators, until the final solution brings it all to a rather interesting conclusion.

The strength of this story is not so much in the mystery, but in the slow unveiling of each character’s proposed solution. Each member builds in the other’s findings, then reveals the flaw and proceeds to tear theory and deductive methods to shreds. 

Berkeley is having great fun here. He not only satirizes the fictional amateur sleuth, but lampoons detective fiction as a whole. Theories and accusations fly as members of the Circle themselves are accused, and one manages to build an irrefutable case against himself. And so, the biggest failing in detective fiction is uncovered—that there is only one interpretation of a given fact, and that the detective is always assumed to have interpreted it correctly. Basically, anything can be “proven” if you look at the facts in a certain way.

In typical fashion Berkeley’s characterizations are ruthless. I especially love the way he portrays Roger Sheringham as the far from the infallible detective, and allows him to look petty, shallow, and often ridiculous. But he has no for the other members of the Circle either.

I developed my theory of the how and who, but of course I was wrong. Oh, I was right, but much like Berkeley’s amateur detectives, I was also very wrong. And, without giving anything away, Berkeley’s ending, and the visual that it evokes of the dumbfounded members, is perfect. 

My Judgment – 4.5/5

Prior Rulings – Kate @ Cross Examining Crime, Ben @ The Green Capsule, JJ @ The Invisible Event

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one book that features food/cooks in some way 

15 thoughts on “The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

    1. Unfortunately mine is the Felony & Mayhem edition, do no alternate endings. Have to look out for a BL edition so that I gave read those. I understand that Martin Edwards ending is very good.

      1. Martin’s ending is very good; Brand’s is fun but not all that special. Both make fascinating additions for their own reasons.

  1. One of these days I’ll eventually whittle down my actual Top Ten GAD novels, and this will definitely be in there. I think it’s a masterpiece, for all the reasons you like it above and several more besides. Easily one of the most accomplished things ever achieve in the genre, and emblematic of why Berkeley is so overlooked, too, since his other work rarely comes close to this in quality.

    1. You’r right in that this has got to be the topper of the Roger Sheringham books. But maybe another reason why they are overlooked is because so many people just can’t stand Sheringham? It’s always been my contention that Berkeley wrote him be an ass. But most of the reviews I’ve read don’t see that, and are based on a dislike of the character.

      1. Thankfully Sheringham is pretty reduced in stature here — we know he’s going to be wrong because he’s Solution #3, and then we move on from him so that others get the limelight. When you’re required to treat him a bit more seriously as a sleuth — The Second Shot, say — I can believe that readers would find him significantly harder to tolerate.

        Mainly Berkeley falls down for me because his experimentation elsewhere is less successful. I must always remind myself that he was trying to play with the limitations and conventions of the genre, and so he’s to be treated tolerantly, but even as I acknowledge the importance of what he wrote I sometimes struggle to find much that’s good in it, y’know? Maybe I should go back and reread him while I’m on hiatus; not having to write up my thoughts might give me time to come to a better accommodation of his variable quality.

        In fact, that’s not a bad idea…

  2. Pingback: My Book Notes: The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Revisited), 1929 (Roger Sheringham Cases #5) by Anthony Berkeley – A Crime is Afoot

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