Friday, July 19, 2013

The Clue of the Chocolate Box

お願い 想いが届くといいな

I hope my feelings reach him
The day to face him has come
Chocolate Disco
"Chocolate Disco" (Perfume)

Ignoring the Ellery Queen review series (which were re-reads), it's been over half a year since I last reviewed an English novel (I did discuss three Dutch novels three months ago though!). And even then I read it in Japanese. So I thought it was finally time to read that classic of detective fiction. And the next review will also be of something Western, though probably not something most readers would expect. Or actually, if they have been here long enough, they would definitely expect that.

In Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, the Crimes Circle, a group of amateur detectives led Roger Sheringham, tries its hand at solving a case that has proven to be too difficult for Scotland Yard. The case: a box of chocolates was delivered to Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, which he in turn gave to fellow member Graham Bendix. Bendix took the box home to give to his wife. The box of chocolates turn out be poisoned however and Joan Bendix dies; Graham luckily has eaten less chocolates and was 'just' severely ill. The police has no idea who poisoned the chocolates or why. At the suggestion of Sheringham, all six members try to figure out who the culprit is, and to everyone's surprise, every member manages to present a completely different explanation to the case!

Yes, this Japanese cover is absolutely awesome.

As is the book itself, by the way. The Poisoned Chocolates Case is of course most famous for its structure: the six members all focus on different aspects of the case, employ different methods (induction / deduction / combination /etc) and propose different solutions to the case, and all theories sound very plausible. What becomes clear as the story progresses though, is how every detectives works in a biased way (even if they don't notice it themselves), choosing to look at what fits their theory, or what they think is the focal point of the case, ignoring elements that don't fit their train of thought.

Detective stories with multiple (false/incorrect) solutions aren't rare, of course. In fact, it's a convention I really like in detective fiction, as I love to see how ideas develop into full-fledged theories; whether something is true or not, is of less importance to me. There seem to be roughly types to the false solution: 1) the false solution based on faked evidence by the real murderer and 2) the false solution based on a faulty deduction by the detective. The first type is quite prevelant in the Queen novels, most famously in The Greek Coffin Mystery, where the murderer keeps planting clues to manipulate Ellery's deductions. The second type needs a bit of clarification: with a faulty deduction, I don't mean faulty as in that the logic itself is wrong, but rather based on incomplete / false information. This seems very close to the first type, with as biggest difference the fact that this isn't set up by the murderer, it happens completely independent from the murderer's intentions. The Poisoned Chocolates Case is of course an example of the second type. Each of the detectives choose to ignore significant elements of the case, which is why they all arrive at different solutions. What is so great is that the solutions are all convincing, thanks to the perfect presentation skills of the members of the Crimes Club (and Berkeley's writing).

An extreme version of the second type is seen in Van Madoy's Marutamachi Revoir, where the detectives purposely construct very plausible, but (probably) false theories, deliberately ignoring evidence and brushing elements of a case off as insignificant. In the special (non-official) courtrooms of Marutamachi Revoir, the goal is to convince the judge, which means that the detectives are practically encouraged to just make something up, as long as the judge believes it and the solution fits their goal.

Having this many solutions of course leads to a post-modernistic ambiance: what can we believe if solutions keep getting rejected. The brilliancy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case lies in the fact that despite the somewhat pessimistic stance towards truth, there is actually a point to the various solutions which saves us from the helplessness of post-modernism. Would I call it an anti-mystery? No, definitely not, and that is all because Berkeley conciouslessly walked along, but never across the line.

Berkeley does really like poking at the genre though. Not only does he give you a handful of solutions, his Crimes Circle is full of the amateur detectives you've come to expect from the genre. Their upper-class conciousness and their pride in being 'experts in criminology' is simply hilarious, and the remarks they throw at each other. Of Berkeley's other books, I've only read Jumping Jenny, which was basically also just making fun of Roger Sheringham. I'd almost feel sorry for him. If he wasn't such a snob.

In conclusion: a must-read. It is both a critique of, and an ode to the classic genre and what makes it fun and it works!

Oh, and pure chocolate is the best.


  1. I still remember when Roger Sheringham began rattling off the exact same solution I had come up with while only halfway through the book.

    The Crimes Circle were apparently based on some of the members of the Detection Club.

    1. Sheringham's solution is probably the one a lot of readers will come up with, as you expect Berkeley to wage everything on 'the twist' in Sheringham's theory.... At least, I also arrived at that solution ^^'