(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The classic English murder mystery enjoyed a golden age in the 1920’s. Whether the mystery’s triumph resulted from the confidence that followed the postwar boom or from a prescient awareness that this era of prosperity would soon come to an end, the public imagination was captured by erudite, self-sufficient, all-knowing, and in some instances debonair detectives—the likes of Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Philo Vance. The reading public was entranced by someone who had all the answers, someone for whom the grimmest, grimiest, and most gruesome aspects of life—murder most foul—could be tidied up, dusted off, and safely divested of their most dire threats so that life could continue peaceful, placid, and prosperous.

“The Avenging Chance”

Anthony Berkeley entered the increasingly fertile field of mysteries, becoming a major figure with the 1925 publication of the often-reprinted short story “The Avenging Chance,” which featured detective Roger Sheringham, on whom his author bestowed the worst of all possible characteristics of insufferable amateur sleuths. A British World War I veteran who has become successful at writing crime novels, Sheringham is vain, sneering, and in all ways offensive. The story was, in fact, conceived as a parody, as the following passage illustrates:Roger Sheringham was inclined to think afterwards that the Poisoned Chocolates Case, as the papers called it, was perhaps the most perfectly planned murder he had ever encountered. The motive was so obvious, when you knew where to look for it—but you didn’t know; the method was so significant when you had grasped its real essentials—but you didn’t grasp them; the traces were so thinly covered, when you had realised what was covering them—but you didn’t realise. But for a piece of the merest bad luck, which the murderer could not possibly have foreseen, the crime must have been added to the classical list of great mysteries.

However, the story proved sufficiently popular to inspire its as yet unnamed author to expand it into a novel, which is now considered to be one of Berkeley’s four classics, The Poisoned Chocolates Case. His other important novels are Malice Aforethought, Before the Fact, and Trial and Error. He actually wrote many others, now considered forgettable, having in fact been forgotten and fallen out of print.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is clever and interesting: Its premise is based on the detective club Berkeley founded. A private, nonprofessional organization of crime fanciers reviews a case that has, in true English mystery fashion, stumped Scotland Yard. Six members will successively present their solutions to the mysterious death of a wealthy young woman, who, it seems, has eaten poisoned chocolates evidently intended for someone else. The reader is presented with a series of possible scenarios (some members suggest more than one), each one more compelling than the last. Thus Berkeley exhausts all the possible suspects, not excepting the present company of putative investigators. Berkeley even goes so far as to present a table of likely motives, real-life parallel cases, and alleged killers, reminiscent of the techniques of Edgar Allan Poe, who based the fictional artifice of “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” on a genuine, unsolved mystery. (Berkeley does this as well in his 1926 The Wychford Poisoning Case.)

Like that of Poe, Berkeley’s method is logical, or ratiocinative, as the chroniclers of C. Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes might aver. Thus, The Poisoned Chocolates Case is remarkable less for its action and adventure—there are no mean streets or brawls here—than for its calm, clear rationale. This is murder most civilized, gleaming only momentarily in the twilight of the British Empire. It is, moreover, murder, in this pretelevision era, by talking heads. Thus, the author must find a way other than plot convolutions to generate interest, to say nothing of suspense, since he is, in effect, retelling his story five times.

Yet Berkeley creates a crescendo of climaxes and revelations of solutions, with Roger...

(The entire section is 1727 words.)