Ambrose Chitterwick once solved a murder that baffled some of the greatest living detectives – and Roger Sheringham. Since then, the unassuming little man has contented himself playing detective by making deductions about the people around him (and unnerving many fellow tube passengers in the process). Things are about to change though…
In the lounge at the Piccadilly Palace Hotel, Chitterwick witnesses the death of an elderly lady. It quickly becomes clear that she had been poisoned by prussic acid. Chitterwick is convinced that he saw her companion, a red-haired man, who had since departed, hovering over her glass as if dropping something into it. When Inspector Moresby arrives, he too is convinced that it is not suicide and the red-haired man is the only suspect. After all, the observant Chitterwick, a reliable witness if ever there was, saw the man do it. With the man’s only defence being that he wasn’t there (although he has no actual alibi) it seems an open and shut case. Isn’t it?
“Read The Piccadilly Murder” I was told by the Anthony Berkeley loyalists. This seemed to be the book everyone agreed on – the book that would convert me to Anthony Berkeley. To be honest, the damage has already been done – I’ve read enough Berkeley to know that I’ll never become a Berkeley loyalist. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy the occasional title by him.
In some ways, if this hadn’t been recommended to me, then Berkeley’s reputation might have stopped me. The central idea that start the investigation is the lead suspect’s family trying to persuade Chitterwick, by various methods, that he could possibly be mistaken. It raises the question as to what sort of mystery this is – is it a whodunit or is it an inverted tale about a murderer trying to escape the law? With Berkeley, one can never be quite sure, and I’m not going to say which it is. What I can say is that this is a very satisfying and, indeed, clever book.
Part of this is Chitterwick. I’ve mentioned before how much I despise Roger Sheringham’s amorality, but Chitterwick, this odd fussy little man, someone completely out of their depth when it comes to, well, life, is a great lead character. Lured into reconsidering the investigation, he slowly blossoms, with the help of his new friends, into a competent sleuth, eventually teasing the truth out of the whole affair.
While there is something of Berkeley’s game playing on display here, it doesn’t have the elements of his writing that annoy me (apart from the couple of references to “Jew-Boys”) – the game-playing doesn’t get in the way of the story and the sleuth actually wants the murderer to be punished. His plotting is razor-sharp, and most readers seemed to have been taken completely by surprise at a certain aspect of the outcome. Thought it was pretty inevitable, given the book’s reputation, personally, but it’s a masterfully constructed revelation.
So yes, this is an excellent book, better even that The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and it really should rush to the top of the British Library To-Be-Published list. Until then, scour the second hand websites and bookshops and be prepared to pay for it – or go to the Bodleian Library like I did…