A review of The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Originally published in 1934 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, The Chianti Flask is more of a psychological novel than a piece of out and out detective fiction. There is a little bit of detective work towards the end of the book, but the book really reads like a hangover of those novels so beloved by the Victorians which explore a moral dilemma, a sort of second-class Trollope, with a healthy dose of xenophobia thrown in.
The book opens with the trial of Laura Dousland who is accused of the murder of her husband, Fordish, by poisoning. The case hinges on a Chianti flask. The Dousland’s Italian servant, Angelo Terugi, claimed that he left, as usual, a flask of Chianti on his master’s tray before he went out. Laura claimed that there was no such flask on the tray which she took up to her husband on that fateful night and the flask was not found.
Laura cuts a sympathetic figure in the courtroom, while Angelo’s clumsy English provokes waves of laughter and, anyway, you can never trust a foreigner. Laura is acquitted, principally as a result of the evidence of a young doctor, Mark Scrutton, who reveals Fordish’s fascination with poison. Although at liberty, her friends are astonished that she is not delighted and prefers to hide herself away. Inevitably, though, she falls in love with the dashing doctor.
Laura’s dilemma is whether she can run the risk the promising career of the doctor by associating herself, a woman who has been accused of a heinous crime, albeit acquitted, with him. Scrutton’s family also have qualms about the impact of their son’s reputation if he married the woman, although Scrutton, lovestruck, is less concerned, but as a keen horticulturalist, is keen to restore the garden of the Dousland’s austere house in an effort to improve its market price.
A bit of gardening leads to a discovery which throws a different perspective on to Laura and Mark’s dilemma.
Lowndes, sister of Hilaire Belloc, makes a better fist of what seems a rather unpromising storyline than I had anticipated, and the book is entertaining enough. It will not immediately appeal to those who like a straightforward murder mystery, but if you like a book that explores the psychological impact of being involved in a crime, even if ultimately acquitted, and the consequences of guilt by association, then this may well appeal to you.
I saw the book also as a bit of a proto-feminist tract. Laura was of middle-class stock but had no money and was forced to earn her living as a governess. She was bullied by her then employer to marry Fordish, a man considerably older than her and considered an odd fish even by his friends. Marriage would give her the security that living by her wits would not, although it was clearly an unsuitable match, which Laura had grave concerns about right at the start. For women in her position at the time, marriage was their only viable option. Inevitably, it was an unhappy marriage, and it is easy to see why Laura, desperate for a way out, could have considered the use of poison.
It also raises the question of the stigma that can attach to women. Her prospects were damaged by her association with the crime, her name and reputation besmirched by having to stand trial, notwithstanding her satisfying the judge and jury of her innocence. Her so-called friends saw as a source of interest and scandal and it would take a brave or reckless man, such as Scrutton, to attempt her rehabilitation into society. Again, marriage was the only way out. There had to be a better way open to a woman in Laura’s situation.
An intriguing book rather than a classic.