The Piccadilly Murder, by Anthony Berkeley

Piccadilly cvr

Anthony Berkeley’s 1929 novel features his diffident amateur detective Ambrose Chitterwick.  Chitterwick is described as ‘a red-faced, somewhat globular, early middle-aged gentleman’ sporting gold-rimmed pince-nez.  His very name conjures up dullness (evoking the image of chitterlings perhaps) but he has more going for him than his unprepossessing appearance suggests.  In this mystery he finds himself by chance at the Piccadilly Palace Hotel having afternoon tea.  A hobby is people watching, attempting to make inferences from their appearances.

Unfortunately while in the lounge he witnesses the unexpected death of an old lady, Miss Sinclair.  Was it suicide, as the police initially think, or murder?  He had seen her in deep and apparently acrimonious conversation with a young man who left shortly before her death.  Going over the heads of the local plods he telephones his acquaintance Chief Inspector Moresby, whom he had met while involved in a previous case.  He informs the Chief Inspector that it looked as though the man dropped something in her cup shortly before he left.  It is quickly established that Miss Sinclair was indeed poisoned.

The man who had been with her is identified as her nephew, Major Sinclair, and the case seems cut and dried.  Mr Chitterwick is ready to swear he saw the deed, but the accused man’s family and friends invite him under false pretences to an old country pile to, as he immediately realises, persuade him to change his evidence, or at least not present it with such conviction.  These champions include a duke and his sister, and particularly the major’s distraught wife who is ready to do anything – anything, she suggests to him in his bedroom at night – to save her husband (a noble offer he hastily declines).

Unable to resist their combined pressure, and somewhat smitten by Mrs Sinclair, he is persuaded to look deeper into the matter.  Yet it seems so straightforward.  The accused was distinctive in appearance and Chitterwick was able to have a good look at him in conversation with Miss Sinclair.  Feeling a fraud, Chitterwick mulls over the matter, but as he ponders, he realises the facts might not be as cut and dried as he first thought.

Chitterwick is shy and bumbling, a man of independent means in name but in practice living under the (very comfortable) roof of his domineering aunt at Chiswick.  Firmly under her thumb, he likes gardening and stamp collecting, those most inoffensive of pastimes.  A mild bachelor he may be, but he is a natural detective with a good grasp of psychology, having long had an interest in criminology.  He is very correct in his manner, and while he will not bend his testimony or conspire to subvert justice, he is fastidious in his desire that right be done.

Of course as he digs it transpires appearances can be deceptive and once he is on the trail he finds possible alternative explanations for the crime.  While he is busy investigating, he hears that a cousin of the major’s is hotfooting from America to do all he can to help, even though he would inherit if the major were to hang.  Hmm.

The plot is quite convoluted, involving two separate but linked plots, but once explained it makes sense, even while the reader suspects the murder was not quite as straightforward to implement as Chitterwick claims.  It is also hard to believe Chitterwick would have mistaken the identity of an individual at fairly short range, however good the disguise and close the genetic link (this barely classifies as a spoiler as the ruse is obvious as soon as the cousin is mentioned, while the identity of the murderer is well concealed).  There is a little social commentary as Chitterwick realises that nobody notices the waitresses in a large and busy lounge; they are effectively invisible.  Even so, Berkeley displays a degree of snobbery when writing lower-class characters.

He overeggs Chitterwick’s awkward shyness and inability to reach the end of a sentence to begin with, but once the sleuthing gets underway in earnest Chitterwick gains in confidence and becomes more bearable.  The police patronise but tolerate him, even so Moresby is remarkably free with information, especially considering Chitterwick is the star prosecution witness.  The Piccadilly Murder is entertaining and flows well, but is a minor entry in the canon of Golden Age detective fiction.


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