The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The aftermath of justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chianti FlaskLaura Dousland is being tried for the murder of her elderly, miserly husband, Fordish. The whole case hinges on a Chianti flask – the couple’s Italian servant says he put a half-full flask on the tray for his master’s supper before going out for his evening off; Laura says there was no wine on the tray when she took it up to her husband later that evening. Whoever is telling the truth, the fact is that the Chianti flask could not be found the next day and has never turned up. Laura is a demure middle-class Englishwoman of good birth and education. Angelo is an Italian of the servant class, whose English (while considerably better than Laura’s Italian, I imagine) is clumsy enough to cause laughter in court. Naturally, the jury believes Laura and she is acquitted.

(FF muses: Why do murder victims in vintage crime so often have strange names? Did Mr and Mrs Dousland not know that if they called their son Fordish, he was quite likely to be done to death at some point? I’m glad my parents called me FictionFan – a name that I am confident will never show up as a murder victim in any book!)

This is in the nature of prologue and all happens in the first few pages, in case you think I’ve just spoiled the story. The mystery of the missing Chianti flask hangs over the book, but lightly. The bulk of the book is set after the acquittal, and is mostly a psychological study of the effect on Laura of having to live with the notoriety of having been an accused woman. While public sympathy is generally on her side and accepts her innocence, there are still some who think she’s a murderer. Her friends remain totally loyal, sure that she could never have done such a thing, but they can’t understand why she now shuns society and prefers solitude to company. Then young Dr Mark Scrutton falls in love with her, but can Laura bring herself to try for happiness again, and can she bear the idea that her notoriety may come to drive a wedge between them in time?

Although there is a mystery within this, it would be hard to categorise it fully as a mystery novel. The question of Laura’s innocence has been officially settled so there’s no legal jeopardy hanging over her. It’s more about the social mores of the time – the stigma of scandal and how it affects women in particular. There’s an undoubted feminist undertone to it, subtly done, showing first how Laura’s straightened circumstances pressured her into marriage with an elderly man and then how little power she had within the relationship once they were married. Lowndes shows how the husband has full control over money and household arrangements, and of course sex. This particular husband seems to have treated Laura as an unpaid servant, denying her even the money to join a lending library. (Gasps of justified horror all around the book blogosphere!) But we suspect his cruelty may have run even deeper in more intimate matters.

Lowndes also shows, however, that it’s not only husbands who hold disproportionate power over penniless young women. Laura had previously worked as a governess for several years, and her employer had come to look on her as a friend. But her kindness to Laura is of the controlling kind – she expects Laura to follow her advice and basically do what she’s told, as a dependant should. At the other end of the scale is the true kindness of Mark’s elderly parents, shocked that their one beloved son has fallen for a scandalous woman but willing to put their concerns aside if they can convince themselves that Laura is necessary to his happiness.

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

It’s an interesting one, no doubt, and very readable, although I must admit I think the ending lets it down quite a bit. I also found it a little irritating that, presumably because of the time of writing, Lowndes was so obscure about the sexual issues she hints at. Not that I’m keen on graphic sex stuff in books, but I really couldn’t decide if Fordish was doing terrible things or if it was that Laura had simply developed a disgust for her elderly husband’s normal (for the time) sexual demands. In other words, was Lowndes saying that Fordish was cruel in particular, or was she making the wider point that a system that gives a husband full sexual power over a wife is cruel in general? Perhaps this would have been clearer to contemporaneous readers who may have been more familiar with how such matters were “coded” in the time before they were considered acceptable for more open discussion. However, the obscurity made me think harder about the issues as I attempted to interpret her full meaning, so perhaps it served its purpose.

An interesting one that disproves again the idea of the mystery novel genre as being formulaic. First published in 1934, it feels very much ahead of its time in terms of its in-depth look at the psychology of the impact of crime and justice on those caught up in them, whether guilty or innocent.

20 books 2019Book 8 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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46 thoughts on “The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

  1. Ha! You make a very good point about names, FictionFan! Certain names are bound to cause trouble on the playground and much later… As to the story, I’ve always liked the way Lowndes builds psychological atmosphere, so I’m not surprised that aspect of it worked for you. And it is an interesting question to consider what happens to people when they’ve been accused of a murder and have that hanging over their heads. Hmm…..Lots of great ‘food for thought’ with that one, so thanks.

    As to the whole question of sex, I wonder if it was because of the times that Lowndes wasn’t a little more specific about what she meant? I can see how you’d want that clarified just a little. She was forthright about some other things, so perhaps that’s it? Or perhaps she herself had such a tough time writing about the topic? Hard to say, but I can see your point. On the other hand, like you, I think that’s preferable to too much explicitness. I have my own imagination, thank you very much.

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    • Haha, I often find myself wondering where authors find the names they give their characters! Yes, the atmosphere of scandal and how it impacted Laura was far more important than the mystery itself in this one, and far better done. At first I was pretty sure that Fordish was being unusually cruel in the bedroom department, but then a couple of things Laura said made me wonder if she was just generally disgusted by him. It is difficult to be clear about these things without straying into graphic territory, and of course ideas of “normal” and “cruel” change over time, even when it comes to marital sex. But in a sense, I felt it was important to know a bit more clearly for what it would have told us about Laura’s character, if you see what I mean.

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  2. Fordish is a new one for me. (my autocorrect kept trying to change it) I can remember always being thrilled as a child to find something with my name on it at those kiosks with personalized items. So many of the names I see today (much less all the spelling variations), would make it impossible now.

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    • Ha, my real name – Leah – was extremely unusual over here when I was a kid, so I could never get those personalised things. Then a couple of decades ago it suddenly became fashionable and now it’s one of the most common girls’ names. I kinda resent them all using MY name! 😉

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  3. I was worried at the beginning about the Italian servant etc., but this seems a very interesting study of what it is to be thought a scandalous women. It’s a good point about the controlling behaviour of her husband, I’ll have to read it before I can comment! Indeed, thank goodness your parents called you FF!!

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    • Yes, I always groan a little when I see a foreigner in one of these older books because they’re always turned into kind of comedy characters, or generally sneered at. But happily Angelo didn’t have a big part to play after the trial, so it didn’t spoil the book. I’m still swithering over whether Fordish was unusually cruel in the bedroom department or whether Laura just found him generally disgusting, but he was certainly a nasty man in other ways! I would have liked it to be just a little clearer since it mattered in terms of what we think of Laura – you’ll see what I mean if you read it! Haha, yes, they chose well! 😉

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  4. I like it when what appears to be genre fiction confounds expectations or plays against type, so this sounds worth a look. By the way, you know that you’ve set a challenge now for someone fiendish to write a crime thriller involving as a potential victim a blogger who’s a fan of fiction…

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    • That’s been one of the most interesting things about the BL series – how many of them don’t fit the “formula” of what we expect from a Golden Age mystery. Haha, I did wonder as I typed it if one of the crime writers who visit might see it as a challenge. I hope they do me in with poisoned chocolates rather than making me the victim of an axe-murderer! 😉

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      • I wonder, in view of everybody’s concern over the name Fordish, whether it’s a variation on something like Fordyce. I’m guessing that -dyce rhymes with ‘mice’ but maybe there are some variations that sound like ‘-diss’ that could lead to ‘-dish’? I’ve no Scottish connections but maybe you know somebody who has?! 🤨

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        • Haha, interesting thought and you may well be onto something! Unfortunately I’ve never met anyone called Fordyce either so have no idea how it would be pronounced up here. And don’t you think “Dousland” – his surname – sounds very English? (And also made up…)

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          • ‘Dousland’ is very close in sound to Dewisland which was the Englished name of part of St Davids in Pembrokeshire, itself probably a ‘translation’ of Llandewi though St Davids in Welsh is Tyddewi, literally David’s House. Dewi sounds somewhere between Dhowee and Daywee, which approximates roughly to the ‘Dou’ of Dousland.

            I speculate of course!

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  5. I think we’re supposed to infer that he had some unusual tastes. It was horrible anyway to make her use all her money up feeding them. Anyway, liked your comments on the feminist angles as well as your joke about your name.

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    • Yes, he was certainly a nasty man regardless of whatever he might have been getting up to in the bedroom department! Another interesting one from the BL – I like that they look for books that go beyond the formula.

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    • Yes, the whole mystery thing felt a bit under developed – clearly she was far more interested in the question of the impact of being accused of murder. So although I felt the ending was pretty poor it didn’t spoil the overall story.

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  6. Fordish is a new one on me, not surprising the fellow may have had a few problems. The feminist criticism within this novel sounds good though, and it is interesting to contemplate whether the issues within the marriage of Fordish and Laura were typical within that time, and the author was using them to make broader social observations.

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    • I often wonder where authors get their characters’ names from! Yes, I liked the undercurrent of feminism in this, and the question of women being subject to their husbands even in the matters of sex. Another interesting choice from the BL – they’ve found plenty of books that don’t fit the formula we expect from the Golden Age.

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  7. Ha ha, your musing really made me smile! I did find The Lodger a satisfying read, and I’ve added The Chianti Flask to the TBR. An exploration of the underlying psychology of why people may be doing what they do always appeals to me.

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    • Haha, my thoughts often wander while reading – this may be why I can never work out whodunit! 😉 Lowndes is an interesting writer – she definitely seems more focused on psychology and social issues than on the actual mysteries. If memory serves me right, I had reservations about the ending of The Lodger too, although I still loved it.

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    • Ha, yes, that was interesting! It made me laugh that the extent of Angelo’s Italian cooking seemed to be pasta and tomatoes – I’m guessing Lowndes hadn’t spent much time in Italy! 😉

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    • They were very good at picking appropriate names, as my brother ForeignFilmFan could confirm! 😉 It’s just out over here, so hopefully it will make its way to other countries in the near future. Poor old Fordish… although really he deserved all he got! 😀

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  8. Well you have me intrigued yet again, FF. This sounds rather good. (I’ve heard it said that a child’s name can reflect on their development, clearly proven in your case. 😳 )

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    • (Yes, our parents clearly had plans for us, as my brother ForeignFilmFan could tell you… 😉 ) The BL series has loads of books now that are rather different from what we expect of a standard Golden Age mystery – it keeps the series interesting.

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    • Yes, She was clearly much more interested in the psychological and social aspects of the impact of the accusation than she was in the actual mystery. So although the ending was pretty bad (imo) it didn’t spoil the overall story. She’s an interesting writer…

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  9. This sounds rather interesting, particularly as an early-ish example of feminist critique. Whenever I hear names like Fordish I just assume that these characters are too posh for my understanding.

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    • Haha, yes, back in those days it did tend to be the posh folks who gave their kids strange names! In books, anyway, while all the commoners were called Ethel or Bill. 😀 I wasn’t expecting the feminist angle from Lowndes, so that gave the book an added interest.

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    • They only bring out one a month and they’re all reasonably short, and yet I still find it a struggle to keep up! There are lots of the early ones I still haven’t got around to. I do think though that they’ve really found their stride now – they’re finding all kinds of interesting gems and often from women writers.

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  10. This is an author I have not tried at all. I may give this one a try since it will be available here eventually in the British Library edition.

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    • I’ve only read a couple of her books – this one and The Lodger, which I must say I enjoyed even more than this one, so if your library has it, I recommend it!

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    • I can understand that mixed response, because this really isn’t a mystery novel in the strict sense – the mystery is pretty much in the background. But one of the reasons I like the BL series so much is that they seem to be finding all kinds of rather off-beat novels now, showing that there was far more to the Golden Age than we give them credit for!

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  11. I’m shocked that this book isn’t about the murder, but the after-affects, how very literary! I hear you about the whole obscurity of their sex life, it’s not like we are looking for graphic details, but just trying to understand what really happened to her sounds like a key piece of info to piece together her character and motivations.

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    • Yes, I felt that in this particular case a bit more info about what was going on behind the bedroom door would have let us know whether she deserved more or less sympathy! The BL seem to be finding all sort of books at the moment that cast an eye over social conditions as much as concentrating on a mystery – the Golden Age clearly had far more variety than we tend to give them credit for now.

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  12. The fact that book was published in 1934 makes me curious about it. The review sounded really good before reaching that point, but now I am even more intrigued. I will check to see if the library has a copy of it.

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    • Yes, I’ve come to the conclusion I prefer reading older books than relying on modern historical fiction to show me what society was like. It does mean you have to tolerate some out-dated attitudes sometimes, but it really gives an insight into what people thought at the time. The feminist angle in this one was a good example of that.

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