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Death by Chocolate

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Five years ago, I visited Pablo Neruda’s former home in Valparaíso, now a museum. La Sebastiana is perched on a hillside with marvel­lous views out over the Pacific. When I reached the poet’s study at the top of the house, the audio tour commentary mentioned the ‘thrillers’ that he’d enjoyed, some of which were gathering dust on the lowest shelf of a bookcase. My lifelong fascination with detective stories made it inevitable that I would get down on hands and knees and explore the books to see if Neruda and I shared any tastes.

There were a couple of dozen paperbacks, including – to my delight – dog-eared green Penguins written by a favourite author of mine, Anthony Berkeley. At one time, Berkeley’s name was spoken in the same breath as that of Agatha Christie, and he was her own favourite detective novelist. Jorge Luis Borges also admired him. A gifted innovator, Berkeley wrote some of the cleverest novels in the crime genre as well as some of the most deeply ironic. Yet over the past eighty years he has become almost completely forgotten.

I first came across his name as a schoolboy, when I was already hooked on detective fiction. I was a fan of the BBC anthology series Detective in which an adaptation of Berkeley’s short story ‘The Avenging Chance’ was screened, starring John Carson as the suave detective Roger Sheringham. The twists and turns of the plot appealed to me and so I scoured the local library for more of Berkeley’s books. With one exception, the witty and ingenious Trial and Error (1937), they were all unavailable. So began my quest to hunt down the rest of his novels and discover more about the secretive, elusive man who wrote them.

Berkeley, whose real name was Anthony Berkeley Cox, was edu­cated at Sherborne and Oxford; he fought in the First World War and suffered long-term health problems as a result of being gassed. After the Armistice, he began to contribute skits to Punch bef

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Five years ago, I visited Pablo Neruda’s former home in Valparaíso, now a museum. La Sebastiana is perched on a hillside with marvel­lous views out over the Pacific. When I reached the poet’s study at the top of the house, the audio tour commentary mentioned the ‘thrillers’ that he’d enjoyed, some of which were gathering dust on the lowest shelf of a bookcase. My lifelong fascination with detective stories made it inevitable that I would get down on hands and knees and explore the books to see if Neruda and I shared any tastes.

There were a couple of dozen paperbacks, including – to my delight – dog-eared green Penguins written by a favourite author of mine, Anthony Berkeley. At one time, Berkeley’s name was spoken in the same breath as that of Agatha Christie, and he was her own favourite detective novelist. Jorge Luis Borges also admired him. A gifted innovator, Berkeley wrote some of the cleverest novels in the crime genre as well as some of the most deeply ironic. Yet over the past eighty years he has become almost completely forgotten. I first came across his name as a schoolboy, when I was already hooked on detective fiction. I was a fan of the BBC anthology series Detective in which an adaptation of Berkeley’s short story ‘The Avenging Chance’ was screened, starring John Carson as the suave detective Roger Sheringham. The twists and turns of the plot appealed to me and so I scoured the local library for more of Berkeley’s books. With one exception, the witty and ingenious Trial and Error (1937), they were all unavailable. So began my quest to hunt down the rest of his novels and discover more about the secretive, elusive man who wrote them. Berkeley, whose real name was Anthony Berkeley Cox, was edu­cated at Sherborne and Oxford; he fought in the First World War and suffered long-term health problems as a result of being gassed. After the Armistice, he began to contribute skits to Punch before writing a detective novel, The Layton Court Mystery, which was pub­lished in 1925. In person, Berkeley was like Jekyll and Hyde, capable of both exceptional generosity and cold cynicism and grudge-bearing. I’ve met his niece, who was extremely fond of him, and corresponded with his stepdaughter, who loathed him. Under the name Francis Iles, he pioneered the psychological crime novel (Hitchcock filmed Before the Fact (1932) as Suspicion but gave this macabre story a happy ending that the author detested), but solving the puzzles of his own personality would challenge any psychiatrist. He dedicated one of his novels, The Silk Stocking Murders (1928), ‘To A. B. Cox, who very kindly wrote this book for me in his spare time’ and went so far as to inscribe a copy to himself. Weird. His dysfunctional personal life included two disastrous marriages, and he protected his privacy with fanatical zeal. His early novels were published anonymously, and he refused to allow his photograph to appear on Penguin editions of his books. After 1939, following an emotional collapse, he stopped writing crime novels altogether, although he continued to review new books (with great insight: he was one of the first to spot the excellence of authors such as P. D. James and Ruth Rendell) until his death in 1971. Berkeley was a highly influential figure during the so-called ‘Golden Age of detective fiction’ between the two world wars. Golden Age detective fiction is often misunderstood as ‘cosy’ but is really better regarded as a reaction to tragedy and horror. After years of slaughter – and an influenza pandemic that claimed even more lives – people just wanted to have fun. They craved escapism, and detective novelists (including those, like Berkeley, who had been seriously wounded in the conflict) supplied it in the form of whodunnits that allowed readers to compete with a fictional detective in solving a laby­rinthine murder case. The author was expected to ‘play fair’ and give adequate clues in the text before all was revealed by an omniscient sleuth. But Berkeley was sceptical about the notion of the infallible detec­tive in the mould of Sherlock Holmes. He understood a fundamental truth that, to this day, political and other media commentators (as well as many other people) routinely ignore: a set of facts is often sus­ceptible to more than one interpretation. He also recognized that the appeal of a detective story – or any crime story – lies not so much in seeing conventional justice done (after all, the criminal escapes pun­ishment in several of Holmes’s most memorable cases) but in tackling uncertainties, even if in an unorthodox way. Roger Sheringham, in some respects an ironic self-portrait, was conceived as an offensive character whose smug confidence in his own brilliance is often misplaced. Sometimes the ‘twist’ is that his ingenious theories fall apart, while the plodders of Scotland Yard get it right. Berkeley’s culprits tend to be more sympathetically portrayed than their victims, and the crimes often resemble acts of altruism. In his universe, the randomness of Fate is everywhere apparent. Time and again, people get away with murder. ‘The Avenging Chance’ concerns murder by poisoned chocolates, a common device of the genre. For a character in a Golden Age story to consume chocolates sent by an anonymous benefactor was invari­ably fraught with danger. The unthinking glee with which greedy recipients gobbled down deadly chocs seems all the more astonishing given the real-life precedent for crimes of this kind. In 1922, Sir William Horwood, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had himself almost died after consuming a walnut whip laced with ar-senic that had been sent to him by a deranged member of the public. Horwood had persuaded himself that the chocolates were a birthday present, which tells us all we need to know about his own detective skills. Berkeley decided that the plot of ‘The Avenging Chance’ had further potential. He developed it into a full-length book and The Poisoned Chocolates Case hit the shelves in 1929, shortly after Berkeley had begun to host dinners with fellow detective novelists. In those days, long before the arrival of social media and literary festivals, most crime writers didn’t know each other. Berkeley’s idea was to assemble those he regarded as the leaders in the field and form his own social network. In 1930, he founded the Detection Club and invited G. K. Chesterton to become its first President. The Club flourishes to this day. The idea of the Club was buzzing in Berkeley’s mind as he wrote the novel. Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard puts the facts about the poisoned choco­lates before the six members of the Crimes Circle, a sort of embryonic version of the Detection Club hosted by Sheringham. The publisher’s blurb for the first edition proclaimed:
This is a detective story on a new plan. Instead of one detective and half a dozen suspects, there are half a dozen detectives and each of them suspects only one person! . . . Roger conceives the idea of setting his Circle the problem which has baffled the police. Each member in turn supplies a different solution. Which is the correct one?
Never has a detective story so dazzlingly exposed the risks of read­ing too much into apparently straightforward evidence. Each time one of the amateur sleuths comes up with an answer to the problem of ‘Who killed Joan Bendix?’, their reasoning seems convincing. And then someone else examines the case and comes up with a fresh inter­pretation of events . . . Berkeley’s flair and inventiveness are highlighted when Sheringham proposes the same solution as in ‘The Avenging Chance’ – only for one of his colleagues to shoot it down. Even then, Berkeley isn’t fin­ished. In Golden Age detective fiction, typically the ‘twist ending’ involves the revelation that the least likely suspect is actually the culprit. Here, meek little Ambrose Chitterwick, who appears least likely to solve a crime and is the last to speak, comes up with the most compelling explanation. This is whodunnit game-playing at its wittiest and most subver­sive. The book’s subtitle, An Academic Detective Story, underlines the fact that Berkeley’s focus is not on emotional engagement or in-depth characterization, but rather on the dizzying possibilities of plot. What is more, Berkeley’s friend and Detection Club colleague Christianna Brand later came up with a seventh solution to his puzzle for an American reprint. After the Second World War, Golden Age fiction fell out of vogue. The cerebral whodunnit was displaced by the psychological thriller. The Poisoned Chocolates Case was out of print for decades. It took me years to find a battered second-hand copy. This struck me as sad. I love modern crime fiction, but that isn’t incompatible with loving Golden Age mysteries too. Christie, of course, is an enduring phenomenon, but all my life I’ve hoped that the merits of her neglected contemporaries would be rediscovered. Thankfully, things have begun to change, and in 2016 I managed to persuade the British Library to reissue Berkeley’s masterpiece in their Crime Classics series. For that edition, I was invited to dream up yet another solution to Joan’s death by chocolate. The opportunity to fashion such a unique personal connection with an author and a novel I’ve admired for so long was impossible to resist. Luckily, when I read through the story for the umpteenth time, paying close attention to every word, an idea for a fresh murderer and motive sprang to mind. The next challenge was to mimic Berkeley’s voice, so that the transition was seamless – or at least as elegant as possible. Writing up the eighth explanation for those poisoned chocs was great fun. Would Berkeley’s ghost approve of my coda to his puzzle? Perhaps he might at least be amused. And now, as we emerge from another global pandemic, is it too much to hope that the escapist, imaginative pleasures of detective fiction past and present will once again help us to cope with life’s uncertainties? As we grapple with the mysteries of the real world, a little literary comfort eating won’t do us much harm. Nor will devouring a few chocolates. As long as we’re sure about where they come from.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 72 © Martin Edwards 2021


About the contributor

Martin Edwards’s lifelong fascination with crime fiction has resulted in twenty novels, most recently Mortmain Hall and The Crooked Shore, and a library that threatens to take over his home in Cheshire. He has also appeared on our podcast, Episode 33, ‘The Golden Age of Crime Writing’.

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