The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Book Details

Originally published in 1934

The British Library Crime Classics reprint is currently available in the UK. A US release is planned for early 2022.

The Blurb

The Chianti Flask opens at a moment of courtroom drama. A quiet, enigmatic young woman called Laura Dousland is on trial for murder, accused of poisoning her elderly husband, Fordish Dousland. The couple’s Italian servant, Angelo Terugi, chief witness for the prosecution, is on the stand and is also under suspicion. At the heart of the puzzle of Fordish Dousland’s death is the Chianti flask that almost certainly held the wine containing the poison which killed him. But the flask has disappeared, and all attempts to trace it have come to nothing.

The jury delivers its verdict, but this represents simply the ‘end of the beginning’ of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel. This book is, in essence, a psychological study into the bitter effects of murder and its aftermath both on the person accused and those close to her. Is it true that there’s no smoke without fire? Only in the closing pages is the mystery of the Chianti flask finally unraveled.

The Verdict

This novel about the social repercussions of being associated with a crime is well observed though be aware the genre elements may be too slight for some readers.

…there was in the story those elements of mystery and strangeness which fascinate most thinking minds.

My Thoughts

I had a plan to have several reviews written and queued up before I went on vacation and this was to be one of those titles. Rather unfortunately though I went and got food poisoning, deadlines flew by, hotel trips got missed among other things. Which is why this post is coming to you on a Sunday rather than Friday as planned. The good news is that I recovered pretty quickly and we were able to make alternative trip plans to my favorite city break spot so things worked out okay in the end and obviously I ended up bringing my laptop with me…

The Chianti Flask begins in the concluding days of the trial of Laura Dousland, a woman who is on trial for the murder of her husband who had died of ingesting poison. One of the reasons Laura found herself under suspicion, other than the prejudices of the coroner, was that their Italian manservant had suggested that he had seen a flask of chianti on the dinner tray that had been prepared for the dead man which had vanished upon his return. While popular sentiment seems to lean towards her innocence, the disappearance of the chianti flask presents a point of mystery that ensures that even when the verdict comes back in her favor the mystery lingers.

This book then is not really about the mystery of what happened to Fordish Dousland, although that will be fully explained by the end of the novel, as it is about the way the stigma of a crime lingers and the uncertainty about the explanation affects those caught up in it psychologically. This is not dissimilar from the exploration of the psychology of the two landlords in The Lodger, although though figures involved are obviously more closely tied to the central crime here.

The focus here is on the character of Laura Dousland and on exploring the social stigma she experiences as a consequence of the trial. There is quite naturally some ghoulish interest in meeting and socializing with a woman accused of murder but there is also a lot of unthinking cruelty in her treatment from her supposed friends. The exploration of that discomfort is quite thoughtful and I found it quite convincing, particularly in depicting Laura’s awkwardness in asserting her wishes with friends who had supported her throughout the trial.

One of the questions is whether Laura will be able to move forwards or if this event will define her. I found this strand of the plot to be the most compelling on a character level, even though it is quite removed from the business of the crime itself. I found myself wanting her to be able to let go of the past and people’s opinions of her, even as I understood why she struggled to do so. It is well-observed and, I feel, quite realistic in its depictions of those doubts and tensions even if the writing style must have felt quite old-fashioned, even in 1934.

I think one of the more interesting elements of this book though is allowed to play out quite subtly in the implications of characters’ conversations rather than any heavy-handed point making. It seems clear that Laura’s relationship with Fordish was a consequence of manipulation and coercion while the character of that marriage seems to have been quite cruel. It also seems clear that societal pressures were stacked against her, making it impossible for her to escape that marriage. For those reasons I found it easy to empathize with her plight, even if I wondered myself if she might be guilty after all.

That question about whether she is guilty or not is the most conventional mystery element within the novel and it is, as I said, addressed by the end of the novel. I was fine with that explanation, though not especially surprised, although I was a little disappointed that the explanation that had occurred to me was not the correct one. On reflection though as I finished the novel I could understand why it was the appropriate conclusion to this story and feel that, on balance, it works.

On the whole I enjoyed the exploration of that question but would emphasize that it is far from a central feature of the novel, meaning that this is a book about a crime that doesn’t really read as a mystery or even suspense fiction (as The Lodger had) but instead primarily as a piece of human drama. That makes this a rather hard book to endorse as a piece of genre fiction, even though I personally enjoyed it a lot. I am certainly glad that I went ahead and imported my copy early and I am interested to read more from Lowndes. I can say though respect the range for taking such an expansive view of the genre and including some occasional unorthodox selections such as this and that if you enjoy more psychological fiction you may well feel like me.

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Book Details

Originally published in 1913.
Expanded from a short story published in 1911.

The Blurb

One damp November evening on the Marylebone Road, a couple sits in silence. Though their thoughts are the same—money and the lack thereof—the time has long since passed when Mr. and Mrs. Bunting could find comfort in sharing their anxieties with each other. Now every word is a reproach—a reminder of luxuries forsaken and keepsakes pawned. Retired servants, the Buntings sunk every last shilling into their London lodging house. Now they are trapped. The rooms are empty, the rent is due, and ruin awaits. When the paper boys’ cry of “Horrible Murder! Murder at St. Pancras!” rings out in the street, Mr. Bunting risks his wife’s ire to buy the Evening Standard. The latest exploits of the killer known as the Avenger will give him something to think about besides his own misery.

Just when he is settling in with the paper, there is a knock at the door. Mr. Sleuth enters, seeking “quiet rooms” to rent. He bears no luggage, save one nearly empty leather bag, and his demeanor is odd, to say least. The beautiful sitting room on the second floor interests him not at all, but the obsolete gas stove on the underfurnished third floor is exactly what he has been looking for. Best of all, he wants to pay a month’s rent in advance. Mr. and Mrs. Bunting believe that the new lodger is a godsend until a dark fear grips their hearts. Could the strange Mr. Sleuth be the Avenger in disguise? And if he is, can they afford to know?

The Verdict

Though I prefer the tighter, punchier original short story, the book’s creation of dread is quite masterful.

On the top of three steps which led up to the door, there stood the long, lanky figure of a man, clad in an Inverness cape and an old-fashioned top hat.

My Thoughts

After suffering several unfortunate misfortunes, the respectable Buntings have found themselves on the brink of destitution. Following years in service the couple had attempted to open a lodging-house but have difficulty letting their rooms. This forces them to pawn almost everything of value including Mr. Bunting’s suit, leaves him unable to find occasional work.

Their prayers seem to be answered when a man turns up asking to see their rooms. After a brief examination he declares the rooms on the top floor to be satisfactory as a place to conduct his experiments but tells Mrs. Bunting that as he does not wish to be disturbed he will rent the rooms below as well, paying a full month in advance. He also insists that he should not be waited on and plans to make minimal demands of them, saying he will call for them if needed.

The new lodger, who calls himself Mr. Sleuth, is a strange fellow but they are certain that he must be a gentleman. His habit of creeping out in the middle of the night is odd but they are too happy at their return to financial security to question his behavior too much. It is only as they learn more about a spate of murders committed by a mysterious figure calling himself The Avenger that they separately start to wonder about the true nature of their lodger…

The Lodger was apparently conceived following a dinner when Lowndes spoke with a man who shared the story of how a pair of his father’s former servants believed a murderer had stayed at their lodging house before committing one of his crimes. Lowndes took inspiration from this to write a short story which was published in 1911 before being expanded into a novel two years later.

The story is a psychological one and I think you can make an argument that it is an inverted story, though it should be said that Lowndes spends much of the novel dealing in suspicion rather than statements of fact. The reader will likely assume that those suspicions are right, if only because if they’re not it wouldn’t be much of a tale, but it is inverted by inference rather than design. What is more important though is that Lowndes chooses to focus not on the details of the crimes but the responses of two bystanders who come to suspect the killer’s identity.

Why is that important? Lowndes is far more interested in the way her characters respond to a crime, particularly of the gory and sensational type that is shown here, than in exploring what happened. This is reflected in the text which avoids going into much detail about exactly what the Avenger does. We get a sense of what that may be through Mrs. Bunting’s distaste for the news reports and the tone of the newspaper headlines, but often we are shown their reaction to information rather than being told exactly what was said. As a technique I think this is rather effective as it allows the reader to project their own ideas onto the situation.

Some of those ideas the readers may well have drawn on would have had parallels in two then-recent cases: the Ripper murders in London and the crimes of Dr. Cream, the Lambeth Poisoner. Lowndes seems to have combined elements from both their crimes, depicting some of the press fervour of the Ripper crimes as well as the killer’s exclusive targeting of women while physically describing Cream and using ideas like his having committed crimes in multiple countries. From this basic framework, Lowndes then further develops her killer, giving him traits like a religious mania, extreme discomfort around women and a furtive and spiky personality, creating a pretty richly drawn character who is a striking and disconcerting presence whenever he is near.

While Sleuth is a strong presence, our empathy and focus falls on the Buntings. The early chapters do an excellent job of describing how they came to be in their situation and helping to connect the reader to their sense of desperation. This is teeing things up for later in the novel where we will need to accept their silence while retaining our sympathy for them – a tough ask but one I think Lowndes mostly achieves. Certainly I had no doubt that the couple really did face ruin without his money and I think she is very effective at conveying the gradual realization on the part of them that he could pose a danger to them.

What this means is that the book is structured to focus on a point of conflict where they will have to confront the nature of what they believe their lodger to be and decide what to do about it. This ought to be a really impactful moment and certainly we get a lot of buildup that really elevates the tension, creating a sense that we are headed for something explosive – an idea that seems to be confirmed by the choice of the location of that climactic sequence.

Unfortunately though I think Lowndes whiffs the ending. For all the dread generated in the lead up to these final chapters, the actual resolution struck me as highly frustrating and unsatisfying. I think the problem is that while she sets up the notion that the Buntings will have to make a choice, the resolution is quite different and done in such a way that we never have to see them make that hard choice.

In the short story that ending doesn’t bother me at all – it not only seems appropriate to the length of the piece, it also reflects that we have spent significantly less time exploring whether the Buntings will do something to act on their suspicions. That story felt really sharp and compact – two things that I do not think could be said of the novel. For that reason alone I would suggest that the short story is the more essential read.

Still, while the pacing can feel a little too slow and deliberate at points and the ending seemed to diminish the roles of our two protagonists, I do think this is an interesting and highly worthwhile read. It is a study in the creation of dread and I am happy to say it succeeds in keeping that up til the very end.