The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Marie Belloc Lowndes
The Chianti Flask

I was fascinated by her book The Lodger, which I’d found rated as one of the ‘four essential mystery stories’ to read. So after enjoying that book, I thought I’d try another of hers.

The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes available on Amazon
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I was fascinated by her book The Lodger, which I’d found rated as one of the ‘four essential mystery stories’ to read. So after enjoying that book, I thought I’d try another of hers.

This book is unusual from the beginning as it starts in the courtroom, whereas the courtroom scene is usually at the end of a book, so immediately it made me wonder where we were going next. I also found the end of the book very unusual as it left me unclear of the author’s, and character’s, intention. The book in general was quite unusual because the reader just seemed to be observing, ie the story wasn’t from anyone’s point of view, not from the accused’s point of view who is the dead man’s wife, or from her friend’s or a detective’s or a witness’ point of view. This made me wonder how the story was going to unfold, were we shortly to begin to see it from a particular person’s point of view or were we to stay as observers throughout the book, were we going to follow the process of finding the possible guilty party now the accused had been found not guilty, if indeed the dead man was murdered rather than committing suicide? The reader also joins the story more or less at the end of the trial, so we don’t hear the evidence against the wife in order to be able to make up our own minds about her guilt or innocence, or even to fully understand why she was actually on trial. The Lodger was very unusual and more psychological in style rather than a typical whodunnit, so I expect this to be unusual too. 

The dead man is Fordish Dousland, killed by rat poison thought to be administered in a bottle/flask of chianti, and he was either murdered or this was by his own hand and he committed suicide.  He seemed an odd man prone to dramatic statements of destroying himself and prone to low mood and to jealousy.  His wife is Laura, and her friends and ex-employers when she was their governess are Alice and John Hayward, the Douslands’ servant and chief witness against Laura in court regarding the missing chianti flask is Angelo Terugi, the Douslands’ doctor is Mark Scrutton, the police officer is Inspector Jarrett, and Laura’s solicitor is Sir Joseph Molloy. 

We do, at various points after the conclusion of the trial, get some thoughts and reflections of Laura, and of others, but not from a first person point of view. Most of Laura’s reflections are on the horror of the three months she spent in prison and how changed a person she now feels, also the shame and degradation she felt at being arrested and imprisoned and how she coped with this by turning to apathy, though she’s aware that others saw this as courage, and also her feelings of gratitude to those who supported her and her wish not to disappoint them, and her apprehension of her life ahead which includes her desire for peace and solitude but also the need to earn a living. John Hayward’s reflections are mostly his regrets that he didn’t voice his concerns about her marrying Fordish and didn’t try to warn her what an odd man he was and didn’t try to dissuade her from the marriage. Dr Mark Scrutton’s reflections are on how fragile and worn Laura seems and how he can see the enormous toll this has taken on her, and his protective feelings and pity towards her. Alice Hayward’s reflections are mostly puzzlement of Laura being different to how she remembered and to how she expects her to be now, such as her reluctance to talk to Alice about the trial and her husband and the chianti flask, and her reluctance to talk to those who supported her through the trial, and her mix of weakness and apathy and then firmness and hardness. Sir Joseph’s reflections, when he is asked by Mark Scrutton’s father for his opinion of Laura, are that he would be reticent if one of his sons had wanted to marry Laura due to the notoriety that must always accompany her but that Laura is innocent and honest and sweet-natured and a truly good woman who deserves only happiness. I felt myself that Laura seemed so very vulnerable to doubt and to low mood, and I felt foreboding when she went back to live at the marital home as she had spoken often of killing herself so I feared her being back there would be too overwhelming.

At this point, I was wondering if the book was mostly going to be about other people’s view of Laura, and if the puzzle of the book was to be about which was the correct view of her. Also if it was to be about her effect on others, as it made me a little nervous when Mark and Laura declared their love for each other and Mark thinks to himself that if he doesn’t have her love then he will kill himself, as this self-destructive passion sounds like Fordish again and made me wonder if this is what Laura unintentionally causes in men, such an intensity of feeling that if it isn’t fulfilled they can no longer envisage living? And also regarding Laura, I realised we don’t really have much idea of how she feels about her husband’s death, although we’re aware she wasn’t happy in the marriage (which made me wonder if this is perhaps because she really did murder him?). I also wondered if the book was more to be a psychological study of how someone deals with a traumatic incident such as being accused of murder, how they retreat into their thoughts and how it haunts them even after it is over, how they are expected to be delighted at a not guilty verdict and to have their life given back to them and to return to being the person they were before they were arrested but how impossible this is for them and what a conflict of emotions they go through. 

Also at this point, I was surprised there didn’t appear to be any further investigation into an alternative murderer, it seemed to be just assumed he committed suicide. 

As an aside, I did really like Mark’s mother and I found her feelings of deep love and willing sacrifice for her husband and son, which she shares with Laura, very touching. 

Ooooh, I was quite shocked when Mark is gardening at Laura’s house on his way to collecting her at the Haywards’ where she’s been staying for a few days, and he finds the chianti flask buried there! He knows immediately that Laura did kill her husband (although I don’t see why he doesn’t consider the possibility it could have been Angelo instead?). I know I speculated earlier in the book if Laura had actually done the murder, thinking it would be a good twist, but I had kind of discounted this as the book went on, with no searching of another culprit and no further involvement from the police and the general assumption Fordish had committed suicide, so it ended up being quite a shock to find she had actually done it.

Mark goes to meet Laura but is unable to conceal his shock from her, they drive to a wood where he tells her to wait in the car, he goes and buries the flask but she is worried about how unwell he seemed so follows him and sees him to do this. She then explains to him what happened with the murder, that she didn’t plan it beforehand, that her husband sent her to get the flask of wine from where he had hidden it in the living room and she then saw the rat poison on the side that Angelo had left there and poured some into the flask without really thinking it through. She makes it sound, though it’s not explicitly said, that it was her continued dread of her husband coming into her bedroom and demanding to sleep with her that had worn her down and overwhelmed her. She says she was shocked when she found him dead the next morning, as part of her thought she’d dreamt doing it. 

We then get to the end of the book, which honestly still puzzles me. Laura decides to walk away from Mark and to kill herself, however he seems to imply that he will help her conceal the crime. I wasn’t quite sure if this was actually what he meant or if I’d misunderstood, as the book ends quite suddenly.  Mark is distressed at learning what she’s done and looks at her as if she’s a different person but he does seem to still want to marry her, and the final words of the book are from him saying, “I can’t give you up, Laura…what has to be expiated we can and will expiate together”. There are no final words from her, the book just ends there, so we don’t know what she decides to do or what happens to them. I am very intrigued at the author’s choice to have the book end in this way, not just the choice of words but to have them be Mark’s words rather than Laura’s, and to not give any indication of how Mark’s words were received by Laura or what happened next. And I am puzzled just what Mark intended by these words. I see the official definition of the word expiate is to ‘make amends or reparation for guilt or wrong-doing’. Obviously Laura can’t be tried again for the crime so she can’t be imprisoned or hanged, so does he mean he won’t share his knowledge of her guilt but they will make an effort in their lives together to ‘pay back’ the crime by good deeds? I note he says ‘we’ so he must intend they stay together, and almost that he is taking on part of her guilt by staying with her and that it will be their joint mission to deal with this guilt and try to pay it back. And is this another sign of the obsessive controlling passion that she seems to unintentionally cause in men? But Mark seems so shocked and distraught at the discovery of her guilt and that she isn’t the woman he thought she was, that to then suggest a life together with this secret knowledge and mission to pay back seems a huge sacrifice on his part. Or is the expiate suggestion actually that they will commit suicide, as Laura had already planned to do when she realised Mark knew she had murdered Fordish, and he had prevoiusly thought about doing if she didn’t agree to marry him? I am guessing that if Mark intended to kill Laura so that she serves the punishment for the crime, as I first thought was his intention by him driving her to the lonely woods, then surely he would have said ‘you’ will expiate this or ‘I’ will help you expiate this. I am thoroughly intrigued by the choice of those last words, the more I think about them the more they puzzle me. The final words could have been words of forgiveness and love, or are they actually this because he shows that he accepts her guilt and will be joined with her in the future? And I do wonder if Laura accepts his statement or if she still sticks to her original plan to kill herself. I think this will be an ending that puzzles me for some time. 

It is a great read, very interesting and unusual and one to mull over. It did feel a memorable and special book to read, due to the unusualness of it and the bravery of the author to break away from the style of the conventional mystery novel and the tackling of several subjects that I don’t imagine were often mentioned at that time. I think it’s more a psychological book rather than a whodunnit, in that it looks more at the effect on people of being involved with a murder charge, both for the accused and for her friends. There are a few good twists, though it wasn’t a book I raced through and eagerly turned the pages and puzzled over whodunnit. I think I prefer The Lodger though, and I’m surprised British Library Crime Classics chose this book over The Lodger to reprint, as I think The Lodger is the better story of the two (but maybe The Lodger is still in print, and they wanted to revive one of her books that wasn’t in print?).

The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback  Audiobook

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