It’s St. Valentine’s Day as I write this post. Now, traditionally, Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day of grand romantic gestures such as flowers, candy and so on, and that’s all fine. But are you aware of how dangerous those things can be? Before you go rushing out to buy that special box of luxury chocolates or that bouquet of expensive roses, have a quick look at some crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.
Flowers are beautiful of course, and if you watch advertisements, you’ll be convinced that nothing says ‘love’ like roses. But consider how dangerous flowers can be. In Agatha Christie’s story The Blue Geranium, a group of people including Miss Marple go to dinner at the home of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly. During the meal, Bantry tells the story of George Pritchard, whose wife suddenly died of what seems to have been shock and fear. That’s not surprising, since she wasn’t in good physical or mental health. In fact, she began to believe that she could only be helped by psychics and seers. That’s how she fell under the influence of Zarida, Psychic Reader of the Future. Zarida specifically told Mrs. Pritchard to beware of, among other things, blue geraniums, blue primroses and blue hollyhocks. Then, mysteriously, the flowers on the wallpaper in Mrs. Pritchard’s bedroom began to turn blue. That’s when she suddenly died. Some people believed that Zarida actually predicted the future. Others blamed Pritchard for killing his wife. But Miss Marple has quite a different explanation.
In Rex Stout’s novella Door to Death, Nero Wolfe takes the drastic step of leaving his brownstone when his usual orchid expert Theodore Horstmann takes a leave of absence. Wolfe has heard of another expert Andrew Krasicki, who works for the Pitccairn family. He wrote to Krasicki asking him to fill in for Horstmann but got no response. Not willing to risk his beloved orchids, Wolfe takes Archie Goodwin with him and they make a personal visit to Krasicki. While they’re there, the body of Krasicki’s fiancée Dini Lauer is discovered behind a canvas in the Pitcairns’ greenhouse. Krasicki’s the most likely suspect since he admits that Dini visited him at the greenhouse the evening before. But he swears he’s innocent. If Wolfe is to bring Krasicki back with him to tend his orchids, he’s going to have to find out who really killed the victim. For Wolfe, that’s quite a motivation. See what trouble flowers can bring you?
It’s also traditional to give a box of candy on Valentine’s Day. Now, far be it from me to discourage you from supporting the chocolate industry. Really. I mean it. But chocolate can be very dangerous stuff.
Just ask Margaret de Rushbridger, who plays a role in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). She is a patient at a Yorkshire sanitarium run by eminent specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. One night, Strange suddenly dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning while he’s hosting a dinner party. Not long afterwards, Margaret de Rushbridger suddenly dies too, this time from chocolates poisoned by nicotine. As you might suspect, there is a connection, but not the one you may think. Hercule Poirot is already investigating Strange’s death and an earlier one that may be related. And in the end he links those deaths to that of Margaret de Rushbridger. See? If she’d just left the chocolates alone, she might have been fine.
And then there’s Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Berkeley’s sleuth Roger Sheringham runs the Crimes Circle, a discussion club for those interested in crimes and their solutions. When DCI Moresby is invited to address the clue, he presents them with a fascinating case. Well-known chocolate company Mason & Sons has come out with a new variety of chocolates. As a way of garnering interest (and of course, sales), they’ve sent boxes of chocolates out to some select influential people. One of them is Sir Eustace Pennefeather Pennefeather doesn’t eat chocolate, so he passes the candy on to a fellow member of his club Graham Bendix. Bendix in turn takes the chocolate home to share with his wife Joan. Shortly thereafter, both Bendixes are sickened. Graham recovers but Joan does not. Analysis shows that the chocolates were poisoned. Moresby lays the case before the Crimes Circle and in turn, each member presents a theory of who killed Joan Bendix and why. The answer isn’t what you’d think, but it does go to show that chocolate is risky.
Very well, then, what about a bottle of fine wine? What a lovely romantic touch, right? Not so fast. Do you know how many fictional characters have been poisoned by wine?
In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of Nicholas Quinn, the newest member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That’s a high-status position, as the Syndicate oversees all exams given in non-UK countries with a UK education tradition. One afternoon, Quinn is murdered with poisoned sherry and Morse and Lewis are soon on the case. It turns out that there are several suspects too. For one thing, Quinn was not a unanimous choice for the Syndicate, so the members who didn’t want him there are under suspicion. Then too, it turns out that some Syndicate members are keeping secrets that Quinn could easily have found out. In the end, Morse and Lewis track down the culprit, but it all might have been avoided if Quinn hadn’t had that sherry. I’m just saying…
And then there’s Arlette Montrose Banfield, who features in Emily Brightwell’s Victorian-Era historical novel Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead. Arlette and her husband Lewis are welcoming guests to the Banfield family’s annual Ball. Everyone takes seats and soon the wine begins to flow. Suddenly Arlette dies of what turns out to be poisoned champagne. Inspector Gerald Witherspoon takes the case and he gets to work right away since the Banfield family are ‘people who matter.’ It took timing and daring, but someone managed to poison the victim in the full view of lots of witnesses. Witherspoon’s ever-efficient and capable housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries alerts her staff, and each in a different way, they help solve the case.
See what I mean? Those grand gestures can be deadly. Besides, they can be expensive. And anyway, there are lots of other great ways to show you care. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She knows her lover Daniel Cohen truly cares about her. He brings her coffee in the morning. Bliss. And then there’s Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache. There’s no doubt his wife Reine-Marie loves him, and one of the ways she shows it is by helping him sort through his files and keep them organised. Now that’s an act of love. And of course there’s my personal choice for truly Great. Romantic. Gesture. Read Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Well, read it anyway, but there’s a great scene in it. Trust me. You’re welcome. Always happy to help with romantic advice.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Bird and The Bee’s My Fair Lady.