Authors: Anthony Berkeley
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Crime
The Poisoned Chocolates Case Berkeley, Anthony
ROGER SHERINGHAM took a sip of the old brandy in front of him and leaned back in his chair at the head of the table.
Through the haze of cigarette - smoke eager voices reached his ears from all directions, prattling joy - fully upon this and that connected with murder, poisons and sudden death. For this was his own, his very own Crimes Circle, founded, organised, collected, and now run by himself alone; and when at the first meeting five months ago he had been unanimously elected its president, he had been as full of proud delight as on that never - to - be - forgotten day in the dim past when a cherub disguised as a publisher had accepted his first novel.
He turned to Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard who, as the guest of the evening, was sitting on his right, engaged, a little uneasily, with a positively enormous cigar.
“Honestly, Moresby, without any disrespect to your own institution, I do believe that there's more solid criminological genius in this room (intuitive genius, I mean; not capacity for taking pains) than anywhere in the world outside the Surete in Paris.”
“Do you, Mr. Sheringham?” said Chief Inspector Moresby tolerantly. Moresby was always kind to the strange opinions of others. “Well, well.” And he applied himself again to the lighted end of his cigar, which was so very far from the other that Moresby could never tell by mere suction at the latter whether the former were still alight or not.
Roger had some grounds for his assertion beyond mere parental pride. 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.
Not only must the interest be intense in all branches of the science, in the detection side, for instance, just as much as the side of criminal psychology, with the history of all cases of the least importance at the applicant's finger - tips, but there must be constructive ability too; the candidate must have a brain and be able to use it. To this end, a paper had to be written, from a choice of subjects suggested by members, and submitted to the president, who passed on such as he considered worthy to the members in conclave, who thereupon voted for or against the suppliant's election; and a single adverse vote meant rejection.
It was the intention of the club to acquire eventually thirteen members, but so far only six had succeeded in passing their tests, and these were all present on the evening when this chronicle opens. There was a famous lawyer, a scarcely less famous woman dramatist, a brilliant novelist who ought to have been more famous than she was, the most intelligent (if not the most amiable) of living detective - story writers, Roger Sheringham himself, and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, who was not famous at all, a mild little man of no particular appearance who had been even more surprised at being admitted to this company of personages than they had been at finding him amongst them.
With the exception of Mr. Chitterwick, then, it was an assembly of which any organiser might have been proud. Roger this evening was not only proud but excited too, because he was going to startle them; and it is always exciting to startle personages. He rose to do so.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he proclaimed, after the welcome of glasses and cigarette - cases drummed on the table had died away. “Ladies and gentlemen, in virtue of the powers conferred by you the president of our Circle is permitted to alter at his discretion the arrangements made for any meeting. You all know what arrangements were made for this evening. Chief Inspector Moresby, whom we are so glad to welcome as the first representative of Scotland Yard to visit us” - more drumming on the table - “Chief Inspector Moresby was to be lulled by rich food and sound wine - into being so indiscreet as to tell us about such of his experiences as could hardly be given to a body of pressmen.” More and longer drumming.
Roger refreshed himself with a sip of brandy and continued. "Now I think I know Chief Inspector Moresby pretty well, ladies and gentlemen, and the occasions are not a few on which I too have tried, and tried very hard, to lure him similarly into the paths of indiscretion but never once have I succeeded. I have therefore little hope that this Circle, lure it never so cooingly, will succeed in getting from the Chief Inspector any more interesting stories than he would mind being published in The Daily Courier tomorrow. Chief Inspector Moresby, I am afraid, ladies and gentlemen, is unlurable.
“ I have therefore taken upon myself the responsibility of altering our entertainment for this evening; and the idea that has occurred to me in this connection will, I both hope and believe, appeal to you very considerably. I venture to think that it is both novel and enthralling.” Roger paused and beamed on the interested faces around him. Chief Inspector Moresby, a little puce below the ears, was still at grips with his cigar.
“My idea,” Roger said, “is connected with Mr. Graham Bendix.” There was a little stir of interest. “Or rather,” he amended, more slowly, “with Mrs. Graham Bendix.” The stir subsided into a still more interested hush.
Roger paused, as if choosing his words with more care. “Mr. Bendix himself is personally known to one or two of us here. Indeed, his name has actually been mentioned as that of a man who might possibly be interested, if approached, to become a member of this Circle. By Sir Charles Wildman, if I remember rightly.”
The barrister inclined his rather massive head with dignity. “Yes, I suggested him once, I think.”
“The suggestion was never followed up,” Roger continued. “I don't quite remember why not; I think somebody else was rather sure that he would never be able to pass all our tests. But in any case the fact that his name was ever mentioned at all shows that Mr. Bendix is to some extent at least a criminologist, which means that our sympathy with him in the terrible tragedy that has befallen him is tinged with something of a personal interest, even in the case of those who, like myself, are not actually acquainted with him.”
“ Hear, hear,” said a tall, good - looking woman on the right of the table, in the clear tones of one very well accustomed to saying “hear, hear” weightily at appropriate moments during speeches, in case no one else did. This was Alicia Dammers, the novelist, who ran Women's Institutes for a hobby, listened to other people's speeches with genuine and altruistic enjoyment, and, in practice the most staunch of Conservatives, supported with enthusiasm the theories of the Socialist party.
“My suggestion is,” Roger said simply, “that we turn that sympathy to practical uses.”
There was no doubt that the eager attention of his audience was caught. Sir Charles Wildman lifted his bushy gray brows, from under which he was wont to frown with menacing disgust at the prosecution's witnesses who had the bad taste to believe in the guilt of his own client, and swung his gold - rimmed eye - glasses on their broad black ribbon. On the other side of the table Mrs. Fielder Flemming, a short, round, homely - looking woman who wrote surprisingly improper and most successful plays and looked exactly like a rather superior cook on her Sunday out, nudged the elbow of Miss Dammers and whispered something behind her hand. Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick blinked his mild blue eyes and assumed the appearance of an intelligent nanny - goat. The writer of detective - stories alone sat apparently unmoved and impassive; but in times of crisis he was wont to model his behaviour on that of his own favourite detective, who was invariably impassive at the most exciting moments.
“I took the idea to Scotland Yard this morning,” Roger went on, “and though they never encourage that sort of idea there, they were really unable to discover any positive harm in it; with the result that I came away with a reluctant, but nevertheless official permission to try it out. And I may as well say at once that it was the same cue that prompted this permission as originally put the whole thing into my head” - Roger paused impressively and glanced round - “the fact that the police have practically given up all hope of tracing Mrs. Bendix's murderer.”
Ejaculations sounded on all sides, some of dismay, some of disgust, and some of astonishment. All eyes turned upon Moresby. That gentleman, apparently unconscious of the collective gaze fastened upon him, raised his cigar to his ear and listened to it intently, as if hoping to receive some intimate message from its depths.
Roger came to his rescue. “That information is quite confidential, by the way, and I know none of you will let it escape beyond this room. But it is a fact. Active inquiries, having resulted in exactly nothing, are to be stopped. There is always hope of course that some fresh fact may turn up, but without it the authorities have come to the conclusion that they can get no farther. My proposal is, therefore, that this Club should take up the case where the authorities have left it.” And he looked expectantly round the circle of upturned faces.
Every face asked a question at once.
Roger forgot his periods in his enthusiasm and became colloquial.
“Why, you see, we're all keen, we're not fools, and we're not (with apologies to my friend Moresby) tied to any hard - and - fast method of investigation. Is it too much to hope that, with all six of us on our mettle and working quite independently of each other, one of us might achieve some result where the police have, to put it bluntly, failed? I don't think it's outside the possibilities. What do you say, Sir Charles?”
The famous counsel uttered a deep laugh. “'Pon my word, Sheringham, it's an interesting idea. But I must reserve judgment till you've outlined your proposal in a little more detail.”
“I think it's a wonderful idea, Mr. Sheringham,” cried Mrs. Fielder Flemming, who was not troubled with a legal mind. “I'd like to begin this very evening.” Her plump cheeks positively quivered with excitement. “Wouldn't you, Alicia?”
“It has possibilities,” smiled that lady.
“As a matter - of - fact,” said the writer of detective - stories, with an air of detachment. “I'd formed a theory of my own about this case already.” His name was Percy Robinson, but he wrote under the pseudonym of Morton Harrogate Bradley, which had so impressed the more simple citizens of the United States of America that they had bought three editions of his first book on the strength of that alone. For some obscure psychological reason Americans are always impressed by the use of surnames for Christian, and particularly when one of them happens to be the name of an English watering - place.
Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick beamed in a mild way, but said nothing.
“Well,” Roger took up his tale, "the details are open to discussion, of course, but I thought that, if we all decide to make the trial, it would be more amusing if we worked independently. Moresby here can give us the plain facts as they're known to the police. He hasn't been in charge of the case himself, but he's had one or two jobs in connection with it and is pretty well up in the facts; moreover he has very kindly spent most of the afternoon examining the dossier at Scotland Yard so as to be sure of omitting nothing this evening.
“When we've heard him some of us may be able to form a theory at once; possible lines of investigation may occur to others which they will wish to follow up before they commit themselves. In any case, I suggest that we allow ourselves a week in which to form our theories, verify our hypotheses, and set our individual interpretations on the facts that Scotland Yard has collected, during which time no member shall discuss the case with any other member. We may achieve nothing (most probably we shall not), but in any case it will be a most interesting criminological exercise; for some of us practical, for others academical, just as we prefer. And what I think should be most interesting will be to see if we all arrive at the same result or not. Ladies and gentlemen, the meeting is open for discussion, or whatever is the right way of putting it. In other words: what about it?” And Roger dropped back, not reluctantly, into his seat.
Almost before his trousers had touched it the first question reached him.
“Do you mean that we're to go out and act as our own detectives, Mr. Sheringham, or just write a thesis on the facts that the Chief Inspector is going to give us?” asked Alicia Dammers.
“Whichever each one of us preferred, I thought,” Roger answered. “That's what I meant when I said that the exercise would be practical for some of us and academic for others.”
“But you've got so much more experience than us on the practical side, Mr. Sheringham,” pouted Mrs. Fielder Flemming (yes, pouted).
“And the police have so much more than me,” Roger countered.
“It will depend whether we use deductive or inductive methods, no doubt,” observed Mr. Morton Harrogate Bradley. “Those who prefer the former will work from the police - facts and won't need to make any investigations of their own, except perhaps to verify a conclusion or two. But the inductive method demands a good deal of inquiry.”