Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review of The Piccadilly Murder by Anthony Berkeley (House of Stratus, 1929)

Ambrose Chitterwick is taking afternoon tea in the Piccadilly Palace Hotel when his attention is attracted to an old lady arguing with a man.  He’s called to a telephone and when he returns the man has gone and the woman is dead.  It appears Miss Sinclair has committed suicide, but Chitterwick witnessed the man’s hand hovering over her tea cup as he distracted her.  When the man reappears for what he says is a scheduled meeting he’s arrested by Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard.  Further analysis reveals that the woman died from Prussic acid poisoning.  As far as Moresby is concerned Major Sinclair killed the old lady to obtain her fortune before she changed her will once she’d realised he’d married against her wishes.  At the request of the Major’s wife and influential friends Chitterwick agrees to keep an open mind and to re-consider his evidence by investigating the circumstances of the death more thoroughly.  He quickly comes to doubt his original conclusion, but if the Major is not the murderer, who is?

Anthony Berkeley was a journalist and crime writer and one of the founders of The Detection Club.  The Piccadilly Murder was published in 1929 and was the first of two books to feature amateur sleuth, Mr Ambrose Chitterwick.  Chitterwick is a man of means who lives with his over-bearing aunt who hen pecks him.  He has impeccable manners, always acts formally, and wants to do the right thing.  On witnessing the death of an elderly lady in the Piccadilly Palace Hotel, and sure he saw the man with her add something to her cup, he volunteers his information to the police.  They quickly apprehend her nephew, Major Sinclair, who fits the description of the man dining with her.  When a duke and his sister ask Chitterwick to come and stay he feels obliged to do so, though he knows that they are going to ask him to consider his evidence.  They persuade him to at least re-examine the death, which Chitterwick does, somewhat to the bemusement of the police, who seem to tolerate his interference due to his social standing.  Berkeley has a nice eye for detail and his dialogue is nicely done with Chitterwick barely able to end any sentence.  In a way the plot is a form of locked room mystery, though conducted in plain sight in the middle of a busy tea room.  While the mystery has Chitterwick and everyone else confused, the identity of the murderer seems fairly obvious to the reader.  However, Berkeley does reveal a dramatic twist at the denouement, though it wasn’t really that convincing.  Overall, an enjoyable amateur sleuth procedural tale from the Golden Age.

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