The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The Chianti Flask is a peculiar addition to the British Library Crime Classics series as it is mostly a love story set on top of a mystery. 🙂

The story begins with a trial where Laura Dousland, a young woman in her twenties, is being tried for the murder of her husband Fordish, who was almost three decades older than her. Fordish has died of rat poisoning, but the evidence against Laura is thin at best. The prosecution’s entire case relies on a missing Chianti flask, which they believe is how the poison was administered. The star witness in the case is the couple’s servant, an Italian by the name of Angelo Tergui, who had been employed because of Fordish’s fondness for Italian cuisine. Angelo has been out on the day of Fordish’s death, but he testifies he left a Chianti flask, with a little bit of wine, on Fordish’s supper tray. He hasn’t been able to find the flask upon his return, and Laura vehemently denies that Angelo left any wine for Fordish that night.

Testifying on behalf of Laura’s defence, we have Alice Hayward, Laura’s previous employer and now friend, and Mark Scrutton, a young doctor who had been Fordish’s acquaintance. Fordish, who was a friend of Alice’s husband John, had met Laura when she was the governess for Hayward’s children. Alice recalls how Fordish threatened to kill himself after Laura refused his hand a third time. She also attests to the odd nature of Fordish, who forbade Laura from having outside contacts after marriage. Mark’s testimony suggests Fordish might have committed suicide to make Laura look suspicious. The couple’s marital problems weren’t a secret to those who knew them as Fordish’s passion for Laura had turned into loathing when she wasn’t able to bear him a child. Mark, who had visited the couple twice before Fordish’s death, recalls how inquisitive Fordish was about rat poison. Taking all these factors into consideration, the jury acquits Laura, and The Chianti Flask follows the aftermath of Laura’s acquittal – even though Laura is innocent in the eye of the law, the murder charge threatens to hang over her head for the rest of her life.

According to Martin Edward’s Introduction, unlike most crime novels of the era, Marie Lowndes’ novels were focused on the whydunit rather than the whodunit. I think The Chianti Flask is a prime example of that. In it, Laura’s trial concludes within the first two chapters, and the mystery surrounding the Chianti flask gets resolved in the final fifteenth chapter – so all the chapters in between are focused on Laura and understanding her psyche. Laura’s character is built endearingly. She is a quiet, frail-looking woman who has been dealt a rough hand by fate. My sympathy for her only intensified as I learnt the extent of her marital woes. Fordish had indeed been a cruel husband to her. He had been a man of many odd habits. Fordish had made Laura spend all her life’s savings on his food, without regard for her tastes – Mark thinks Laura has been malnourished for a while. Also, knowing how much Laura loved reading, Fordish had barred her from getting a library card, causing her much misery.

Because of all of this, Alice can’t understand why Laura, who comes to stay with them after her acquittal, continues to remain glum. Alice wants Laura to perk up and move on with life, and attend soirées she has organized. The chatter at these gatherings will be about the court case when all Laura needs is some peace to find her bearings once again. While public interest in morbid crimes isn’t new, Alice’s behavior speaks volumes of her character – even though Alice insists on being considered Laura’s friend, she comes across as overbearing. Possibly due to their past power dynamic, Laura feels trapped by Alice’s generosity, not knowing how to refuse Alice. (It is also revealed that it was Alice who persuaded Laura to marry Fordish, saying Laura will not be able to find a better match.) Mark becomes Laura’s ally to help keep Alice in line, and her curious friends at bay.

It didn’t surprise me when the friendship between Mark and Laura blossomed into love. It happens quite naturally, but their relationship is marred by Laura’s fears that her past will overshadow their future. Although Mark remains steadfast in his affections, and his intentions to marry Laura, she tries to pull out of the engagement a few times, thinking it would be best for Mark to find a partner with an unblemished reputation. One of the moving moments in the story comes when Mark tells his parents about the future Mrs Scrutton. Mark is the only child of a blissfully married couple, so they are understandably concerned, even though they have the good sense not to show their disappointment without getting to know Laura. This parent-child relationship is portrayed with so much tenderness. They want Mark’s marriage to be a success just like their marriage, but they worry that society won’t let Laura leave behind her past, and the inquisitive nature of others might jeopardize the young couple’s happiness. In the end, when they realize Laura has misgivings about marrying Mark exactly for the same reasons, they understand how much Laura loves their son, making them root for their son and future daughter-in-law with all their hearts.

First published in 1935, The Chianti Flask is a realistic portrayal of the consequences of facing murder charges. Laura getting acquitted doesn’t assuage people who believe in her guilt. Similarly, to most people who believe in her innocence, she becomes a curiosity – they would pay good money to know her story! While the psychological aspect of the novel is brilliantly handled, what let me down is its ending when we find the whereabouts of the missing Chianti flask. To say more would be a spoiler, but a longer explanation behind the reasons as to whydunit would have been befitting. 😀

3 stars.

Note: Many thanks to British Library Publishing for sending me a review copy of The Chianti Flask.

One comment

  1. Such a detailed review.

    Liked by 1 person

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