Recently, Moira at Clothes in Books had a very interesting piece in The Guardian book blog about how very wrong fictional dinner parties can go. And they certainly can. Let me give you a moment to go check out her terrific article…
Back now? Right, dinner parties. It’s little wonder that they’re popular plot points in novels, really. There are all sorts of different personalities, opportunities for conflict, character histories, and lots more for the author to use to build tension. And in crime fiction, they’re great settings for a murder. You’d think that with everyone in the same room, it’d be hard to get away with something like murder, but it does happen. Here are just a few examples.
In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, we meet a young academician Wyatt Petrie, who’s invited several guests for a weekend house party at Black Dudley, a remote old property that’s been in the family for generations. One of the guests is Dr. George Abbershaw. Through his eyes, we get a look at the other guests at dinner on the first night. There’s already a sense of tension, but the dinner goes off as planned. After dinner, everyone goes into the drawing room, where there is on display a large dagger. Petrie tells his guests the story of the dagger and of a ritual game in which the lights are turned out and the dagger is passed round. The last one to hold it is the loser, so the goal is to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Several of the guests want to play the game so finally it’s decided to go ahead. Late that night, Abbershaw is wakened and asked to attend to Petrie’s Uncle Gordon Coombe, who has apparently died of heart failure. It turns out that the real cause is stabbing, and Abbershaw works with Albert Campion, who is also part of the house-party, to find out who the killer is.
Agatha Christie made use of dinner parties as contexts for several of her stories. I’ll just mention two of them. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), famous specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange is poisoned at a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. This murder bears several resemblances to an earlier death, that of the Reverend Stephen Babbington. He was killed by the same poison during a cocktail party. Hercule Poirot attended that party and is persuaded (not that that takes much effort… ) to look into Strange’s murder. He finds that several of the same people were at both events. Now Poirot has to figure out which of the people who were there on both occasions had a reason to kill both men. He’s just gotten started when there’s yet another murder. In the end, we find the three murders connected, but not in the way you might think. Christie uses the ‘murder at a dinner party’ again in the short story Yellow Iris. In the story, Rosemary Barton dies of poisoned wine during a dinner party with her husband, her sister Iris and five other people. It’s thought to be a suicide at first, but then anonymous notes suggest otherwise. So a year later, her widower George re-stages the dinner, with the idea that he’ll be able to determine who the killer is. At that dinner, there’s another death. Christie wrote a different version of this story and expanded it to create Sparkling Cyanide, and the two stories have different sleuths and even different murderers. I invite you to read each and see which you think works better.
Rex Stout’s Champagne For One also involves murder at a dinner party. In that novel, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to attend a dinner/dance being held at the home of wealthy socialite Louise Robilotti. The dinner is an annual event intended as a benefit for Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. Each year some of the Grantham House residents are invited to the dinner to get a close-up look at how ‘the right sort of people’ live, and it’s hoped that some may even meet young men. One of the guests at this year’s dinner is Faith Usher, who, by more than one account, has cyanide in her purse and plans to use it during the evening. Sure enough, Faith dies during the evening and at first, everyone believes that she followed through on her plan. Goodwin isn’t sure that’s true, though, and wants to investigate. He’s up against considerable odds though, as his hostess has lots of social ‘clout’ and no desire to be mixed up in a police case. Nero Wolfe supports Goodwin though, and together they find out what really happened. Given Wolfe’s love of fine food, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is only one of several Wolfe stories that involve death at a dinner. Wolfe fans will no doubt be able to add considerably to this list.
Dave Roberts’ Sweet Poison, which takes place in 1935, features Lord Edward Corinth and journalist Verity Brown. Corinth is a ‘blue blood,’ but a younger son, with all that that implies. One evening, he’s on his way to dinner at his older brother Gerald (current Duke of Mersham). By chance he encounters journalist Verity Browne and, mostly because of car trouble, she goes with him to the dinner. They arrive late – in fact, just after one of the guests Sir Alistair Craig dies of poison. Corinth and Browne work together (‘though not always amicably) to find out who had a motive for murder. They find in fact that more than one person wanted the victim dead.
In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s formal engagement to her boyfriend Greg Harris. The plan is a large engagement party/weekend at the home of Harris’ mother. The tension gets ratcheted up even before the party with the arrival at the Kilbourn home of Christy Sinclair. She is the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s older son Peter, and Kilbourn had thought Peter was well-rid of the girl. Instead, Christy joins the group for the trip to the Harris home, and even hints along the way that she and Peter may be getting back together. At the party, tragedy strikes when Christy dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. As it turns out though, her death was no accident, and Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation. As she discovers, this death is closely related to Christy’s past and to other deaths that have occurred recently.
And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This one is a clear example of how the context of a dinner can be used effectively to build tension. In this novel, two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette meet for dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. As the dinner progresses, we get to know the couples and their families better, and we see how deeply dysfunctional they are. We also learn that they’ve all been keeping a terrible secret, which is actually the reason for the get-together. As each course is served, we learn more and more about what’s happened in the families and about their histories. The novel is a very dark portrait of a dinner party, but it’s an innovative use of the context.
And dinner parties can be highly effective contexts for murder mysteries. There’s tension, there’s a group of disparate personalities, and of course, there’s delicious food and drink. Which ‘dinner party’ murder mysteries have stayed with you?
Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.