The Endless Poisoned Chocolates Case

Anthony Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case has gotten a lot of praise over the years, and deservingly so – but no reviewer to my knowledge has ever noticed what in my opinion makes it a truly unique experiment.
Mysteries aim at finitude – the story is over once the puzzle is solved; there is nothing or little to add unless you decide to write a sequel, that is, another book. Poisoned Chocolates is different as its very concept means that it can be expanded again and again with no end in sight; all it takes is coming up with a further solution to the titular problem. Only two authors so far have risen to the challenge: Christianna Brand in the Eighties then Martin Edwards when the book was reprinted four years ago as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, but there is no reason to stop there. Anyone clever, imaginative and of course talented enough can contribute to what remains to this day a work-in-progress.
Knowing Berkeley as we do, there is no doubt he had that peculiarity in mind from the start. Poisoned Chocolates Case is not merely a gratuitous display of plotting virtuosity; it is the first of several attacks from the author on the very foundations of the detective story.
What Berkeley tries to prove there is that the « logic » behind the genre is merely author’s fiat, as there is nothing irrefutable about the detective’s reasoning; it is only one possible interpretation of the facts among many others. (How convenient that « culprits » always end confessing or commiting suicide!)  Thomas Narcejac then Pierre Bayard would later make the same point.
That it is still possible to add new chapters to the book almost one century after it was published proves how cunning and perceptive Berkeley was and how on-target his point was. It also leads one to wonder whether other detective stories really are as finite as they seem to be. « Subversive » is a word often used indiscriminately nowadays but it certainly applies there.

6 commentaires sur “The Endless Poisoned Chocolates Case

  1. Berkeley’s point was indeed regarding all detective fiction. He is not suggesting merely that the Poisoned Chocolates Case is open ended, but that ALL detective stories are. Which is also why we can have books like Bayard’s “Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” or even my idea of having Mrs. Rodgers playfully forging a confession letter from Judge Wargrave (which includes a ridiculous conspiracy plot with Dr. Armstrong, when it was actually her the foolish doctor conspired with— it’s amazing what a nice pair of legs can do) after having killed them all and before getting in bed to take an overdose of chloral hydrate.

    Nearly all whodunit solutions are abductive chains: inference to the best explanation. Individual points of a solution might be reached at deductively, but there are no crime solutions the entirety of which (the individual points and their connection) are arrived at completely deductively, to my knowledge (which is the primary reason I think arguing about “fairness” of clueing is silly, while subjective opinions of clue sufficiency are valid). Of course, with the best works of the genre, it can be difficult to come up with an additional solution that is more convincing or all-encompassing than the one provided by the author. A great whodunit solution seems to satisfactorily explain everything— at which point we really don’t care to exhaustively eliminate all other possible solutions that could do the same.

    Aimé par 2 personnes

  2. perhaps the most haunting variant of this agnosticism about solutions is The Burning Court. Memorable characters.
    Superbly clued and solved mystery. Flawless and seamless. The killer carted off to punishment. And then the casual amoral « But that’s not what happened at all. »

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. I think Carr does even better than that. For, the rational explanation of The Burning Court— for all of its satisfying clues and complexity— turns out NOT to be flawless… it has one subtle but insurmountable imperfection. Thus we’re left with a choice of a rich, traditional rational whodunit, more detailed and satisfying solution but with defect that makes it logically impossible to accept as the truth, and a supernatural one that offers none of the pleasures of “retrospective illumination” but must nonetheless be the truth.


  3. I meant to write

    “ thus we’re left with thr choice of a rich, traditional rational whodunit solution, more detailed and satisfying than most, but with defect that makes it logically impossible to accept as the truth, or..”


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