Friday, May 28, 2021

The Chianti Flask - Marie Belloc Lowndes

This is an odd mystery from the Crime Classics series - it slightly defies categorisation, it's not quite a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit, it is arguably a romance, although the romance is the least interesting part of the book. It is however a compelling look at what happens to one woman after she's tried for her husbands murder. 

Laura Dousland falls on hard times as a young woman when her father dies having lost all the family money. She hasn't been educated to do much but makes a reasonable living as an old fashioned sort of governess who can be relied upon to teach the daughters of the more recently rich to behave like old money. 

Laura's last employer, the benevolently despotic Alice Hayward, persuades her to marry a school friend of her husbands who is infatuated with he much younger woman. The age gap is a good 30 years and Laura does not much like Fordish Dousland. but he is persistant, as is her friend, and her options aren't great so she does indeed marry him.

We learn all this along the way, when the book opens Laura is on trial, Fordish Dousland has been poisoned, and there's an odd mystery around a disappeared chianti flask. The rat poison that did for him was almost certainly taken with the wine, but what happened to the bottle?

Laura is quickly acquitted and the body of the book deals with her attempts to come to terms with all she's been through. At the same time she's falling in love with a well to do doctor who gave evidence on her behalf and is now treating her, he's falling equally hard in love with her. The twist at the end isn't entirely surprising, but it's a good one nonetheless (and at the slight risk of this being a spoiler, the biggest mystery about the Chianti flask is why anyone tried to hide it in the first place).

'The Chianti Flask' was first published in 1935, but feels as if it belongs to a slightly earlier time, but then Marie Belloc Lowndes was well into her 60's when she wrote this, and maybe that's why Laura and Mark's romantic interludes feel somewhat old fashioned. His parents reaction to their relationship has the same touch of melodrama about it, but rings true for their age and class.

Class is a theme throughout this book, most of the characters are upper class, and there's a good bit of discussion about how a woman who has stood trial for murder can fit back in socially now that she's notorious. It's interesting to compare this with Dorothy L. Sayers, Harriet Vane books. Strong Poison came out in 1930, Have His Carcass in 1932, and Gaudy Night the same year as The Chianti Flask (1935). Laura and Harriet are more or less of an age, and it seems reasonable to assume that Marie Belloc Lowndes would have been familiar with Sayers work. These are very different books, but both have a feminist slant that makes a comparison worth while.

It's the portrayal of women, their lives, and the limitations they face - especially in Laura's case that make this book so interesting. Laura, Alice Hayward, and Mrs Scrutton - they all jump off the page. All are flawed, human, and compelling - Marie Belloc Lowndes was a vaguely familiar name before I read this, now I'm really keen to try and read more of her work - or see some of the films based on it. 

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