Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case is an absolute delight. It focuses almost entirely on summation, but manages within its artificial boundaries to accomplish everything we want in detective fiction. I’ll try and explain.
The Problem: Sir Eustace receives a sample box of Masons chocolate liquors in the mail. Uninterested in acting as a Masons guinea pig, he gives them to fellow club member Graham Bendix who, in turn, takes them to his wife. After eating the chocolates, Mrs. Bendix dies and her husband is taken ill, both of them having been poisoned with nitrobenzene.
The Investigation: The police are at a loss, eventually settling on the unsatisfying conclusion that a madman must’ve dunnit. Enter the Crimes Circle, an exclusive club of murder enthusiasts determined to solve the case–not necessarily for justice, but rather their own fascination with crime and bragging rights…mostly bragging rights. And it is here where TPCC appears to diverge from the standards of detective fiction. We do not follow the not-quite-sleuths as they question suspects and bribe witnesses–no, instead we follow six summations with six solutions to the problem.
How is this fair play?
Deftly, Berkeley manages to present clues (scant at first) inside of each summation. This allows us to construct the crime if we are clever enough to choose which parts of each summation are important. This allows the narrative to slyly function as a normal murder mystery.
It helps that the characters are well-drawn, witty, and wonderfully competitive. Every solution is different and constructed with its creator’s specific brand of logic. Moreover, the angles of deduction show how this simple bit of poisoning can be twisted into a properly entertaining puzzle before being twisted again into an altogether different one.
The Solution: It may sound strange, but I was happy to solve this by Chapter 16. I’m not bragging — I rarely solve murder mysteries. There’s a specific passage that got me thinking (or is it guessing?) about a certain aspect, and, like our final orator, Mr. Chitterwick, it took the entirety of all the solutions to allow me to do so. Whether you get the solution or not, TPCC is a joyously-good read.