Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Chianti Flask - Marie Belloc Lowndes

My Second nomination for Cross Examining Crime's reprint of the year is a slightly odd mystery from the British Library Crime Classics series - it defies easy 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 accused of her husband's murder. 

Laura Dousland fell on hard times as a young woman when her father died 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 husband's, who is infatuated with the much younger woman. The age gap is a good 30 years and Laura does not much like Fordish Dousland. But he is persistent, 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).

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 worthwhile.

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. There's a lot to love about this book, which feels like something quite out of the usual way.


  1. I have this one on my TBR pile. I have been meaning to read it but other books and life have invariably got in the way. But having read this, maybe it will get its day next year.

  2. I hope I can find this book and read it. I like the setting, the story and am curious how it eventually panned out for Laura.