The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowdnes
This intriguing novel was first published in 1934 from the prolific pen of a writer who has produced a ”book (which is) in essence a psychological study written from a feminist perspective” as Martin Edwards points out in his informative Intoduction to this British Library Crime Classic reprint. It picks an unusual perspective for a crime novel. The poisoning is past, a man is dead, and the book opens with the trial of his quiet widow for murder. This book not only records the latter part of the trial, but also the aftermath for those who were most concerned in the matter. It combines a mystery which seems to revolve around a flask of wine and its whereabouts, a woman for whom life seems to be fated to constant interest despite or maybe because of her reserved nature, and the nature of friendship and love. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual Golden Age of Crime novel.
The trial in which Laura Dousland stands accused of murdering her older husband Fordish seems to hang on the evidence of an Italian servant Angelo Terugi. Brought in as the latest whim of the exacting Fordish, he is unhappily closely questioned on what exactly happened to a Chianti flask which once held the wine that his master insisted on accompanying his evening meal on a tray. The servant admits that he had designs on the contents as enjoying the wine himself, but that he cannot account for what happened to the missing twenty fourth bottle that went unreturned to the supplier. The importance of the wine bottle is that it is generally supposed to have contained the poison that killed the man. Throughout the trial Laura has sat quietly, almost impassively, as if the very real danger of a guilty verdict and the gallows did not concern her. Fortunately she has an able and experienced representative in Sir Joseph Molloy, who has many skills in terms of strong cross questioning and selecting witnesses who are well prepared to say helpful things in the defence of his client. From the account of the trial Fordish emerges as a jealous man, aggressive towards any visitor, and of whom even his personal servant says “Yes, sir, for my master he love money very, very much”. The first doctor on the scene at the discovery of the death is of no help to the defence, but a second doctor, a younger man of medical research, reveals how the deceased seemed to be fascinated with the nature of the poison which was in fact used. Thus the very real possibility of sucicide is raised. Further evidence is brought in support of Laura; her ex employer and great friend Alice Hayward speaks of Laura’s character and how she had at first refused Fordish’s offer of marriage despite her lonely situation and unexciting prospects. Alice in fact states that she had “strongly advised her to accept his offer of marriage”, despite the fact that she admits him to be eccentric, and he had threatened suicide if Laura did not agree to marry him. The trial proceeds to its conclusion, and in some respects the novel begins from that point.
This book has much to say on the marriage at the centre of the mystery, but also other relationships which influence the eventual outcomes. I found the small details, like that Laura had to spend her own money on housekeeping in the early days of her marriage, and that subsequently was refused money even to pay her circulating library subscription, fascinating. The settings in which the characters find themselves in has much to offer in the tone of the novel, from the house and garden stuffed with auction finds by the miserly husband, to the opulence of a bedroom in which one of the characters fails to find sanctuary. This is an unusual novel which has much to say about women and their expectations of life at the time, while concealing the mystery of a vital piece of evidence. It is subtle, clever, and certainly an alternative to male dominated novels of detection of the time.