First published: UK, Collins, 1929; US, Doubleday, 1930
“In any case, I think we may say that this is an exceedingly carefully laid and clever plot. Any plot involving impersonation must be so.”
One of Berkeley’s best. Mr. Chitterwick, bumbling but astute, witnesses the poisoning of an old lady by prussic acid – apparently with nobody about her. Throughout, the style is witty, ironical and amusing; the hotel is well depicted; and the solution, relying on elements from Chesterton’s “Queer Feet” and “Invisible Man”, a triumph of misdirection.
The story opens with the unusual situation of a witness actually seeing a murder being committed. An elderly lady and a red-haired man are having coffee in the lounge of The Piccadilly Palace Hotel, and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick notices the latter drop something into her cup. Within a quarter of an hour she dies of prussic acid poisoning. It is established that nobody else has been near her; the evidence shows that death could not have been due to suicide. She is identified as a Miss Sinclair, a wealthy woman, and the red-haired man as her nephew and sole heir. A clearer case never existed. Mr. Chitterwick becomes the star witness for the police and the red-haired man is committed for trial. But was he the poisoner?
He watched a Murder.
Mr. Amose [sic] Chitterwick witnessed all, and a clearer case never existed but – was the elderly lady who was having tea in the lounge of the Piccadilly Palace Hotel actually poisoned by the redhaired man at her side? Nobody else had been near her; Mr. Chitterwick knew that, and fifteen minutes after the red-haired man left, she was dead of cyanide poisoning!
Here is a real detective story, packed to the last page with mystery. Anthony Berkeley, who wrote such thrillers as THE SILK STOCKING MURDERS and THE POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE, has surpassed himself in this new book.
Times Literary Supplement (2 January 1930): This is a good story in which the solutions are cleverly handled. When Major Sinclair’s time came to meet a friend, he found one in shy, hesitating Ambrose Chitterwick, an amusing little man with a bullying aunt. There is a higher quality than mere cleverness in the methods of Chitterwick turned amateur detective, who applies himself to the solution of the crime committed in the lounge at the Piccadilly Palace Hotel. He had been out on a shopping expedition with his aunt, who did not approve of lunching in the hotels of Piccadilly; so Ambrose, who had a weakness for such things, quietly slipped away for a black coffee and a glass of Benedictine, and was dragged into witnessing the murder of an old lady by the dropping of prussic acid into her coffee in the hotel lounge, thus getting his photograph into the papers. Such was the least of the exciting things to happen to him while he was trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the red-haired Major who was the old lady’s nephew, and was committed for trial as he murderer. In the end, the real poisoner is discovered by Mr. Chitterwick, the major’s innocence is proved, while the curiously complicated motives for Miss Sinclair’s death are made clear. The book has originality and a sense of drollness – a rare enough quality in such stories.