Category Archives: Ngaio Marsh

What a Brave New World We Live in*

Limits of TechnologyIn Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot is talking to two young people about the brand-new world they want to create:


‘In your new world, my children, let there be freedom and let there be pity…that is all I ask.’


He touches on an important point. What should be the limits to our technological and sociological development? To put it another way, just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

It’s a complicated question and I don’t have the complete answer. But it’s addressed in a lot of novels including crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan has prepared an Anarchy Bill which is specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. One day he suffers a ruptured appendix during a speech in the House, and is rushed to a private hospital run by his physician Sir John Phillips. He is taken into surgery, but dies shortly after the procedure. At first it looks as though it’s a tragic case of ‘nothing the doctors could do.’ But it’s not long before it’s proven he was poisoned. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the murder and soon find that there are several suspects. And because of the sequence of events, almost all of them had the opportunity. When Alleyn and Fox put the pieces of the puzzle together, they find that the killer believed that because something can be done, it should.

Several of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers also explore the limits of what medicine can and should do. To take just one example, there’s an interesting debate about stem cell research in Seizure. US Senator Ashley Butler has been an outspoken opponent of stem cell research. But when he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he knows that barring some sort of miracle, he will never achieve his dream of becoming President of the US. So he secretly contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell, who runs a biotechnology company that does stem cell work. The agreement that they work out is this: Butler will quietly withdraw his objection to stem cell research if Lowell operates on him. Plans are made to perform the controversial operation Lowell has in mind at the Wingate Clinic in the Bahamas. The surgery is carried out, but it has some frightening unforeseen consequences. This novel addresses both the important benefits and the potential terrible consequences of certain kinds of medical research and procedures.

One of the story arcs in Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy (Anger Mode, Project Nirvana, The Missing Link) has to do with a ‘wonder drug.’ Stockholm County CID Inspector Walter Gröhn and Detective Jonna de Brugge investigate what appear to be a series of killings that are committed for no apparent reason other than rage. That investigation leads to a much larger exploration as the novels go on of what science and biotechnology are capable of doing – and whether it should be done. The trilogy also explores the ramifications of the wrong people getting hold of certain kinds of technology.

In Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957, Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin gets involved in a dangerous investigation that starts with a funeral. Berlin’s wife Rebecca asks him to speak to a friend of hers Beryl Moffit, whose husband Cyril recently died. There was an oddity about the funeral and Beryl isn’t exactly sure what to do about it. Berlin agrees to talk to her and soon finds himself drawn into something much larger than he thinks. What looks on the surface like odd procedures at a funeral home is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in a larger case of intrigue, high-level cover-ups and murder. And at the core of it all is a set of serious questions about whether ends justify means. Does being capable of doing something mean it should be done? And what are the larger consequences if it is done?

 These kinds of questions are also explored in William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, which takes place in pre-World War II Moscow. CID Captain Alexai Korolev and Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are asked to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. As it is, the matter is delicate because Azarov was working on a top-secret government project. But the detectives begin their investigation. Then there’s another murder; this time, the victim is someone Korolev and Slivka thought might be a suspect in Azarov’s murder. The Powers That Be have a theory about the killings, and that’s the one they want Korolev to ‘rubber stamp.’ But he and Slivka are fairly certain that it doesn’t explain everything. So they decide to continue with their investigations. In the end they uncover something both chilling and unexpected. And that discovery raises again the disturbing issue of the limits to which we should go.

Science, medicine and technology have moved us forward in critical ways. We need those fields, and supporting them is essential. But as crime fiction shows us, this raises some important questions. How do we support scientific and technological development, and at the same time retain our humanity if I may put it that way? How do we balance medical achievement with protecting individual people?  Just because we can push the button, so to speak, does this mean we should? The answers are not easy. What do you think?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Adrian Belew’s Brave New World.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Ngaio Marsh, Robin Cook, Stefan Tegenfalk, William Ryan

You Tried to Reconstruct the Crime Scene With a Handful of Clues*

ReconstructionPolice detectives and other sleuths use a lot of different strategies and techniques for solving cases. And of course, each case is a bit different and requires a different approach. One of the approaches detectives take is reconstructing the crime. By that I don’t mean just going to the crime scene. I mean replaying the events of a crime, sometimes with the suspects and witnesses reprising their roles. It’s a staple of classic and Golden Age crime fiction, but you even see it in some modern novels. 

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once that it’s possible to solve a crime by simply sitting in one’s chair and thinking. But he’s not averse to going to the scene of a crime and reconstructing the events of it. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one evening. In the Golden Age tradition, there are several suspects, each of whom had the motive and opportunity. But the most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who had a serious quarrel with Ackroyd over money, and who disappeared shortly after the murder. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent and wants to clear his name. So she asks Poirot to investigate. At one point, after learning that Flora went to her uncle’s study to say goodnight just before he was murdered, Poirot asks Flora and family butler Parker to replay that incident:


‘‘One moment,’ cried Poirot, raising his hand and seemingly very excited. ‘We must have everything in order. Just as it occurred. It is a little method of mine.’
‘A foreign custom, sir,’ said Parker. ‘Reconstruction of the crime they call it, do they not?’ He was quite imperturbable as he stood there politely waiting on Poirot’s orders.
‘Ah! he knows something, the good Parker,’ cried Poirot. ‘He has read of these things. Now, I beg you, let us have everything of the most exact. You came from the outer hall – so. Mademoiselle was – where?’
‘Here’ said Flora, taking up her stand just outside the study door.
‘Quite right, sir,’ said Parker.
‘I had just closed the door,’ continued Flora.
‘Yes, miss.’ agreed Parker. ‘Your hand was still on the handle as it is now.’
‘Then allez,’ said Poirot. ‘Play me the little comedy.’’


As we learn, Poirot has a very specific reason for wanting to reconstruct this scene. 

In Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy, journalist Nigel Bathgate is feeling restless one rainy evening and on impulse, visits a local religious group House of the Sacred Flame. While he’s there, he witnesses an unusual ceremony. At the height of it, one of the participants Cara Quayne suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison that’s been placed in a chalice used in the ceremony. The only likely suspects in the case are the other participants and their religious leader Jasper Garnette. Bathgate calls in his friend Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Alleyn puts the machinery of law in motion. One of the questions raised is how anyone could have poisoned the chalice from which the victim drank. So Alleyn has several of his people, including Inspector Fox and Bathgate, take the places of the worshipers to reconstruct the murder. That exercise shows Alleyn how the crime could have been committed without anyone seeing. And in the end, it helps him to figure out who would have wanted to kill the victim. 

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is in part the story of the murder of a postman Joseph Higgins. He accidentally breaks a leg and is taken to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime military use. During what’s supposed to be a routine operation, Higgins suddenly dies. At first his death is put down to tragic accident and Inspector Cockrill is assigned to handle the investigation and routine paperwork. But Cockrill isn’t satisfied that Higgins died accidentally, and Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. So Cockrill begins a more thorough investigation. Then another patient, also with a fracture, is scheduled for surgery. One of the medical staff Esther Sanson has gotten very attached to this particular patient and is worried about what will happen to him. Cockrill assures her that he’ll be attending the surgery so that he can see that all goes well. The surgery turns out to be very close to a complete reconstruction of Higgins’ murder, since this patient also nearly dies on the table. Cockrill is able to see exactly what happens in surgery and he uses that knowledge to find out who killed Higgins and why. 

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at a dinner dance hosted by powerful socialite Louise Robilotti. The not-very-hidden agenda is that the evening will provide an opportunity for some of the young women of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. It’s hoped that by mixing with members of the ‘better class,’ these women will learn how that class does things, and perhaps even meet young men. During the evening, one of the Grantham House guests tells Goodwin that another guest Faith Usher has brought cyanide with her and intends to use it to commit suicide. Later, Faith does in fact die of cyanide poisoning and everyone is convinced that she followed through on her threat. But Goodwin isn’t. So despite a great deal of pressure to let the case go, Goodwin and Nero Wolfe investigate. Part of that investigation is a reconstruction of the last few moments of Faith Usher’s life. In typical Wolfe style, he has several people who were there come to the famous brownstone, where things are laid out the way they were on the fatal evening. The reconstruction is very helpful in showing exactly how the victim was poisoned. 

Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force uses reconstruction of the crime in H.R.F. Keating”s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. He’s just been promoted to the rank of Inspector when he gets an odd assignment. Sir Rustom Engineer, head of the Crime Branch of the police force, asks Ghote to do him a personal favour. He’s had a letter from an old friend Robert Dawkins, whose wife Iris recently committed suicide. Dawkins wants to know why she would have taken her life, and Engineer asks Ghote to go to Mahableshwar and investigate. Ghote isn’t happy about leaving his wife Protima, who’s about to give birth to their first child, but he doesn’t feel he has a choice. So he travels from Bombay to Mahableshwar to look into the case. It’s not long before Ghote begins to suspect that Iris Dawkins was murdered. If she was, the question of course is who killed her? Finding the answer to that question is difficult, since no-one very much wants to cooperate with Ghote. But in the end he finds out the truth. And part of what leads him to the answer is a reconstruction of the crime. He goes to Dawkins’ home and quite literally walks through each step of the crime, taking different people’s roles as he goes. It’s a very interesting approach to finding out whodunit. 

And then there’s Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With, the first of her NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series. Harald and her assistant Detective Tilden are called to Vanderlyn College when the Art Department’s deputy department chair Riley Quinn is poisoned. Quinn had made his share of enemies in and out of the department, so there’s no lack of suspects. And part of the process of investigating this crime is looking into each suspect’s background and tracing each suspect’s movements. But that doesn’t completely answer the question of how the killer managed to poison Quinn. The poison was administered in a cup of coffee that department secretary Sandy Kepler brought from the cafeteria back to the department’s main office. That cup was among others that were left together within easy reach of a number of people. Because there were several people in the office at the time the poison was put into the coffee, Harald and Tilden decide to reconstruct the crime to see where everyone was and who could have put the poison into the coffee cup. That reconstruction makes it possible for Harald to see exactly how the deed was done. 

And that’s really the main purpose of reconstruction. Reenacting a crime can help the sleuth to see clearly how one or another person could commit a crime without being noticed. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, Sherlock Holmes fans), but hopefully they’ll help you reconstruct what I mean.


*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Stephen Bruton’s Dogs May Bark.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, H.R.F. Keating, Margaret Maron, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

I Want to Break Free*

ExplicitnessAs society has changed, so have the social constraints on the way crime writers tell their stories. On the one hand, there are certain ‘isms’ that are considered offensive by today’s standards, but that didn’t restrict crime writers from the classic and Golden Ages. So as we look at novels from those eras, we see references that today’s authors would probably hesitate before making, if they made them at all. On the other hand, there are many fewer social constraints on explicitness in today’s world. So today’s crime writers are under less social pressure to ‘tone it down.’ Of course, sub-genre often plays a role in how much explicitness there is in modern novels (e.g. Cosy mysteries are generally very low on violence and aren’t graphic about sex either). So does the author’s/publisher’s vision of what serves the story. But in a very general sense, today’s writers aren’t obliged to refrain from sex scenes and violence the way their predecessors were.

A fascinating post by Moira at Clothes in Books has given me, as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would say, furiously to think about this issue. Moira’s post raised the question of whether authors of other eras would include sex scenes in their stories if the social mores of the day had allowed it. The answer, as you can imagine, depends on the author. But it got me to thinking about what crime writers of other eras might have written if those social mores had permitted it. Like Moira, I can only speculate. But here are a few of my thoughts (with which of course, feel free to differ if you do).

It’s said that Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes as a response to then-contemporary fictional detectives who solved crime through intuition and whose successes depended a lot on coincidence and serendipity. His Holmes solved crimes through reason, logic, and scientific principles. And as Holmes fans will know, that approach serves him well. Certainly the stories acknowledge the allure of sex; for instance in A Scandal in Bohemia, there’s a more or less direct acknowledgement that the King of Bohemia had an intimate relationship with actress Irene Adler. The stories acknowledge violence too. But honestly, I doubt whether either of those two elements would be detailed explicitly were Conan Doyle not constrained by the social ‘rules’ of his day. Holmes’ passion is the solution of problems. He is far more interested in the intellectual exercise of finding out the truth of a case than he is in much of anything else. Of course there are stories in which he shows compassion and recognises the human side if you will of a case. But that’s not his focus and I don’t think it was Conan Doyle’s.

What’s interesting about Agatha Christie when it comes to this question is that she wrote until 1973, by which time there were fewer social constraints on explicitness in novels. And yet, she basically refrained from it. There are of course mentions of sex in her novels. For instance in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore is discussing famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright, with whom she’s smitten. She mentions that she ‘likes men to have affairs,’ and she describes one actress as having ‘masses of S.A. (sex appeal).’ There are also mentions of the violence involved in the murders Christie describes. And yet, she didn’t write bedroom scenes and didn’t describe violence in explicit detail. By the end of her career, doing so was no longer as socially unacceptable, but her writing was always focused more on plot than on character development or side issues. It’s hard to tell of course whether she refrained from explicitness because of personal taste, the mores of her childhood or her choice to focus on plot. While it’s probably some sort of combination of factors, my guess is it’s more the latter than anything else.

One of Agatha Christie’s contemporaries was of course Dorothy Sayers. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature character development more than Christie’s do. She also traces the love affair between Wimsey and mystery novelist Harriet Vane over a story arc in a way that Christie chose not to do. But I’m not sure that she would have included sex scenes or for the matter of that, explicit violence if she were writing today. The love she describes in her novels is, if I can put it this way, more romantic love than love as it’s expressed through sex. For instance, at the end of Gaudy Night, when Harriet Vane finally agrees to marry Lord Peter Wimsey, it’s a romantic moment, not a sexual one. Sex is implied in Strong Poison, where we first meet Harriet Vane. She’s accused in that novel of poisoning her former lover Philip Boyes, with whom she lived without being married to him. But no direct references are made to their intimate moments, and no bedroom scenes are described. It’s just my guess (so again, do disagree with me if you feel so moved), but Sayers probably wouldn’t change that aspect of her writing if she were writing today. Her background was a strongly religious one, and she often wrote from that perspective. That perspective might very well mean she’d exercise restraint, even today.

The ‘Queen Team’ of cousins Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky introduced Ellery Queen in 1929’s The Roman Hat Mystery. In the first novels in that series the focus is just about entirely on the intellectual mystery involved. As the series goes on, though, we see the gradual evolution of Queen’s character and more attention paid to other characters as well. For example, 1942’s Calamity Town features a strong focus on the members of the Wright family and the character of Jim Haight, who marries one of the Wright daughters Nora. When Haight’s sister Rosemary comes for a visit and dies of poisoning, he is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons. There are of course a lot of whodunit elements in this mystery, but there’s also character development. And there certainly is in 1951’s The Origin of Evil, in which Queen solves the mystery of some baffling and macabre ‘gifts’ given to jewel dealers Leander Hill and Roger Priam. And that novel hints quite a bit at sexual intrigue. For instance, Priam’s wife Delia is a very attractive woman who may (or may not) be open to seducing Queen. Other later Queen novels have a similar kind of innuendo in them. If the ‘Queen Team’ were writing today, it’s quite possible that they’d have included more than innuendo. Especially the later novels acknowledge the role that sex plays in a lot of crime and, free of the then-current mores about it, these authors might very well have been more detailed.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels often feature Bony’s ability to understand what nature is telling him. He solves crimes by making sense of clues he sees in his surroundings, among other things. And yet, Upfield didn’t ignore character development by any means. In novels such as The Bone is Pointed, Death of a Swagman and The Bushman Who Came Back, we see how the interactions among the characters have led to violence. And Bony pays attention to those interactions. So these novels are as much character-driven in their way as they are plot-driven. The reasons for murders sometimes have to do with love and sex too, too, so Upfield does acknowledge the role that sex can play in crime. And yet, he was, as Browne puts it, ‘something of an old-fashioned moralist.’ In fact, here’s what Upfield himself said:


‘There are only two subjects to write about – crime and sex. A good clean murder, no matter how badly written, is better than a sordid seduction, no matter how well written. That’s my view and I don’t imagine I’ll ever change it.’


I’m not sure he would either. If not, it’s not likely he would write explicit scenes, even given today’s mores about them.

There are of course dozens of authors I haven’t mentioned. That’s how it is when you have the space of only one post. So I’m sure I’ve missed out authors whose work you enjoy. What do you think?  Would authors such as Ngaio Marsh or Edmund Crispin write explicit scenes? What about others whose work you know?

Thanks, Moira, for the ‘food for thought.’  Folks, do please visit Moira’s terrific blog. It’s a rich resource for discussions of fashion, social attitudes and customs in all kinds of literature.



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Queen, written by John Deacon.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: X-Rays and Other Medical Procedures

X-Rays and Medical ProceduresThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is in the closing weeks of our dangerous trip through the letters. Thanks as ever go to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us all together and safe – well, to this point anyway… ;-)  X marks the spot where we’ve stopped this week. The X-El Health Centre, that is. Oh, no need to worry; everyone’s just fine. But the good folks at X-El were kind enough to invite us for a tour, since so many crime fiction novels take place in medical facilities. Everyone’s interested in seeing what really goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in such places, and is getting questions ready. While the others are deciding what to ask, I’ll make my contribution for this stop: X-Rays and other medical procedures.

Most health care professionals work very hard to ensure that all goes well during any procedure. But you never know what can happen even if there’s no malicious intent. And when there is, well, anything is possible. Just have a look at these examples from crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigate the shooting death of a dentist Henry Morley. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why anyone would want to kill him, as he had no obvious enemies and no fortune to leave. One possibility is that someone was trying to get to one of Morley’s patients Alistair Blunt, and that makes sense. Blunt is a powerful banker who’s made several political enemies. But then, one of Morley’s other patients Mr. Amberiotis is found dead of an overdose of anaesthetic. So another possibility is that Morley made a tragic mistake with the amount of anaesthetic he gave his patient during the procedure, and killed himself as a result. Then another of Morley’s patients disappears. Now it’s clear that much more is going on at Henry Morley’s surgery than anyone thought possible…

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted to a military facility for wartime use. Postman Jospeh Higgins has been brought to the hospital with a broken femur. He’s scheduled for a fairly routine procedure in which his leg will be set and treated. The operation turns out to be anything but routine though, and Higgins dies during the surgery. At first, his death is put down to tragic accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police is called in to make an official report, and it’s not long before he begins to wonder about Higgins’ death. First Higgins’ widow suggests he was murdered, then other little hints surface. One night at a party, Sister Marion Bates has too much to drink and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. She also says she knows how it was done. Later that night, she is found stabbed in the operating theatre and her body displayed in a very theatrical fashion. Now it’s clearer than ever to Cockrill that Higgins was murdered, and he slowly finds out what the connections were between all of the suspects and Higgins, and he gets to the truth about the killer.

MP Sir Derek O’Callaghan finds out how dangerous medical procedures can be in Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder. He’s about to introduce the Anarchy Bill, which would allow for strong action against those identified as anarchists. This of course earns him some strong support, but at the same time, it makes him some powerful enemies. Sir Derek also makes personal enemies. For instance, he has a short fling with a nurse Jane Harden, who isn’t nearly as willing to pass the whole thing off as he is. And one of her admirers is Sir Derek’s own physician Sir John Phillips. When Sir Derek has a severe case of abdominal pain, he is rushed at his wife’s insistence to Sir John’s private nursing home, where he undergoes surgery. When he dies during the procedure, it’s thought at first that this was a tragic but accidental death. But soon enough, Sir Roderick Alleyn begins to suspect otherwise and starts a more serious investigation. And a reconstruction of the surgical procedure helps Alleyn figure exactly who killed the victim and how.

In Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson, Boston pathologist Dr. John Berry gets mixed up in a very dangerous case. His good friend Albert Lee has been arrested for performing a then-illegal abortion on Karen Randall. The procedure went wrong and the patient died of complications. What’s more, Karen Randall was the daughter of J.D. Randall, one of the most influential doctors at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, where both Berry and Lee work. Lee insists that he’s innocent and is being framed because he’s Asian-American. Berry isn’t sure of that, but he does know that there are some questions about what really happened. There is a great deal of pressure to let Lee be the scapegoat for this death, but Berry is loyal to his friend and what’s more, he’s scientifically interested in what happened. He begins to investigate and finds out that Karen had a secret life quite apart from her life as the ‘blueblood’ daughter of a powerful doctor. He also finds out that this case is mired in power politics and cover-ups. In the end, Berry uncovers what really happened to the victim, but not before he himself becomes a target.

A good deal of the action in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds takes place at the Löwander Hospital, a private facility. One night there’s a blackout at the hospital during which one of the nurses Marianne Svärd is murdered. What’s more, the blackout has cut off the respirator providing oxygen to one of the patients Nils Peterzén. He’d been a patient of special concern anyway, because there were complications in the operation he had. The Göteborg Violent Crimes Unit is looking into the nurse’s murder and the patient’s death when another nurse Linda Svensson disappears. Her body is later found in an unused attic of the hospital, in the same place where, fifty years earlier, another nurse hung herself. Now the team has to find out who would have wanted to kill Peterzén and the two nurses.

You see? Surgical procedures usually save lives. But they aren’t always safe. And did you notice that I didn’t mention any of the many medical thrillers in which surgical or after-surgery procedures go murderously wrong. Too easy! ;-)   Now, if you’re ready, we’ll head over to the health centre. Won’t it be fascinating to see some of what they do there???  ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Helene Tursten, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Ngaio Marsh

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Wine

Wine MurdersWell, well, well! It seems that the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has made it all the way to our twenty-third stop. Our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has done a fantastic job of leading us through all of the dangers thus far. Thanks, Kerrie! Today we’ve arrived at the Wishing Well Winery, which has a lovely guest lodge and interesting guided tours through the vineyards and the winepress. Everyone is looking forward to the tour and to the wine tasting that’s scheduled later. Right now the others are making room in their luggage for bottles of the delicious wines we’ll be having. So it’s a good time for me to offer my contribution: Wine.

That’s right, wine. Of course as a person who enjoys a glass of good wine, it is hard for me to face the fact but it’s true. Wine can be deadly. Beyond the fact that too much of it makes for potentially fatal auto accidents, wine is also a very handy murder tool. I know, I know, fellow wine drinkers. It’s sad, but true. Don’t believe me? Here’s just a quick glance at some crime fiction in which we can see exactly how this tragedy happens.

Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide features not one, but two murders from poisoned wine. One year before the events in the novel, Rosemary Barton joined her husband George, her sister Iris, and five other people at the Luxembourg for dinner. Rosemary died at the table of what turned out to be wine laced with cyanide. At first everyone thought it was suicide motivated by post-‘flu depression. But then George began receiving anonymous notes suggesting that his wife was actually murdered. Now, a year later, he decides to re-create the night of his wife’s death, and find out whether she was murdered, and by whom. He invites all of the people who were there that night to the Luxembourg and hires an actress Chloe West to take Rosemary’s place. During the dinner, George suddenly dies, again of cyanide found in his wine. His friend Colonel Race hears about the death and is sure now that both victims were murdered. He investigates the killings and finds out that depression had nothing to do with what happened. Interestingly enough, this novel was an expansion of an earlier short story Yellow Iris. Christie made some major changes though between the short story and the novel. For one thing, Hercule Poirot plays a role in the short story but doesn’t appear in the novel. For another, the identity of the killer is different in the two versions. Christie uses poisoned wine as a weapon in other stories too such as Death Comes as the End.

Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy features an unusual house of worship, The House of the Sacred Flame. One night, journalist Nigel Bathgate notices the building’s sign for the first time and, intrigued, visits the building on impulse. He discovers that it’s not at all a typical religious group and that a not-at-all-typical ceremony is about to begin. As a part of the ceremony, a chalice of wine is passed round among the attendees. When it’s Cara Quayne’s turn, she takes the chalice and drinks some of the wine. Seeming to be in a state of ecstasy, she falls to the floor. When it’s clear she’s dead, Bathgate gets his friend Sir Roderick Alleyn involved in the case. It turns out that the wine was laced with prussic acid. Now Alleyn has to find out not only why and by whom Cara Quayne was killed but also how the killer managed to target just her, when everyone else had access to the wine. See? Even in a house of worship, the wine isn’t safe!

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin is reluctantly persuaded to take a friend’s place at an upcoming dinner dance hosted by powerful socialite Louise Robilotti. The annual event is held mostly to benefit the young women of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. The idea is that if these young women are introduced into ‘polite society,’ they’ll learn how things are done in ‘the better circles’ and perhaps even meet an eligible young man. During the dance, Goodwin gets the chance to meet several of the young women, one of whom is Faith Usher. Goodwin is told that Faith has brought cyanide with her and said that she plans to commit suicide during the evening. As the dancing is going on, Faith suddenly dies and everyone believes that she’s followed through on her threat by slipping cyanide into her champagne. Goodwin doesn’t though. So despite intense pressure from his socially powerful hostess and the police, he begins to investigate. In the end, he and his boss Nero Wolfe find out who murdered Faith Usher and why.

Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn tells the story of Nicholas Quinn, the first Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That group is responsible for all exams given in non-UK countries that follow the British system of education. The decision to name Quinn to the Syndicate was not universal, so right from the beginning he enters into a contentious atmosphere. Then one day Quinn suddenly dies in his home of what turns out to be sherry laced with cyanide. There are no signs of break-in, and Quinn wasn’t married. So Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis look at Quinn’s circle of friends and acquaintances, beginning with the other members of the Syndicate. They find out that each member was hiding something and that Quinn had found out something it was not safe for him to know. 

Arlette Montrose Banfield finds out just how dangerous wine can be in Emily Brightwell’s Victorian-Era historical mystery Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead. Arlette and her husband Lewis are hosting the Banfield family’s annual Ball. The guests have just begun to sit down and have their first glasses of wine when Arlette suddenly dies. Inspector Gerald Witherspoon and his team are called in immediately as the Banfield family is important. It’s not long before it’s established that this is a case of murder by prussic acid. And how was the poison given? In a bottle of champagne. Since the victim died in full view of about two hundred people, the first task that faces Witherspoon is how the killer managed to poison the victim’s wine without anyone noticing. Then, there’s the matter of who the killer is. And this isn’t an easy question, as there are several people who might have wanted to kill the victim. Witherspoon’s capable housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries alerts her staff to the murder case and, each in a different way, they find the various pieces of the puzzle.

Of course, not all wine tragedies end in murder. For instance, in Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux, noted oenologist and winemaker Benjamin Cooker and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien take on a case of sabotage. Denis Maissepain has discovered that four barrels of his estate’s wine have been contaminated by brettanomyce, a yeast-like spore that can ruin wine. He is a meticulous and well-skilled vintner, so carelessness or negligence is soon ruled out. That leaves deliberate sabotage, and Cooker and Lanssien look into the case to find out who would have wanted to ruin Maissepain’s winery.

I know, it’s sad isn’t it that something as pleasant as wine can be used as a murder weapon. And yet it can. Now, I think it’s time for the tour of that vineyard. Join us for the wine tasting?  ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Emily Brightwell, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Nöel Balen, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout