The Crimes Circle had been meeting for about five months when the group’s president, Roger Sheringham, brought a special guest to one of their dinners. The guest, Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, provided the evening’s entertainment in the form of a problem that had been vexing the police. Joan Bendix had recently died after eating some poisoned chocolates. The chocolates had been given to her by her husband, Graham, who had obtained them from Sir Eustace Pennefather when they happened to meet at their club. Sir Eustace received the chocolates in the mail as a free sample—a free sample that in retrospect looks awfully suspicious. Sir Eustace has plenty of enemies, but the police cannot figure out which of them might have sent the chocolates, and so Moresby is bringing the case to the Crimes Circle. And so we have the problem of the 1929 novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley.
Sheringham was confident that this group offered “more solid criminological genius” that you would be likely to find anywhere. After all, “entry into the charmed Crimes Circle’s dinners was not to be gained by all and hungry. It was not enough for a would-be member to profess an adoration for murder and let it go at that; he or she had got to prove that they were capable of worthily wearing their criminological spurs.” So far, only six people had met the requirements for entry.
The group members agreed to each take a turn a proposing a solution to the poisoned chocolates mystery, and over the course of the next six weeks, they each shared their solution with the group. The book’s charm is not so much in the mystery but in the unveiling of each character’s approach to solving it and the tearing down of each solution in turn as the members of the Circle react to each proposed solution. Each suggestion seems plausible, yet each one contains some flaw. As the book goes on, group members build on others’ findings, and the discussion gets contentious. It doesn’t help that a few of the members have a personal connection to the case.
A few aspects of the story are quite predictable. The way it’s structured makes one aspect of the ending nearly inevitable. But the fun of the book is in watching the club members tussle over the case. I had a vague sort of theory about the case myself after reading the set-up, and I enjoyed seeing the club members hover over some of the same ideas I considered.
Anthony Berkeley is actually the pen name for Anthony Berkeley Cox, a Golden Age mystery writer who also wrote under the pseudonyms Francis Iles and A Monmouth Platts. As Francis Iles, he wrote the marvelous Before the Fact, which was the basis of the Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion. (It occurs to me, having just seen Gone Girl this weekend, that Before the Fact and Gone Girl would make interesting companion reads. They have a lot of themes in common.) This book doesn’t have a lot in common with Before the Fact, but it’s excellent in a different way. If these two books are representative of the quality of Cox’s work, it’s unfortunate that he’s not more widely known today.