Well, here we R at the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme’s eighteenth stop. We’ve been having a wonderful time thus far, and for that I thank our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Today, we’ve stopped at Rburgh, a delightful village with of all things, a terrific bakery. Oh, it’s quite well known and everyone’s looking forward to sampling the wares, so to speak. We’ll be leaving for the bakery in a short while, which should give me just enough to time to make my contribution for this week: rye and related grains.
‘What?’ you may ask. ‘How on earth can baked goods be dangerous?’ Well, let me explain. There’s a fungus called ergot which grows on rye and other grains in that family. And that fungus can have all sorts of devastating effects on humans including hallucinations, ‘rage attacks’ and a lot more. Don’t believe me? Let’s just check out a few examples of crime fiction to show you what I mean.
In Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, we meet Edward Armstrong, a noted neuroscientist who’s been just accepted an offer to work for a breakout biotechnology company Genetrix. Armstrong and his team have been doing some research into brain chemistry and they are hired to use their findings to develop a new anti-depression medication. Then, Armstrong meets and falls in love with a Boston-area nurse Kimberly Stewart. She’s in the process of renovating an old home that’s been in her family for a few hundred years and Anderson takes an interest in what she’s doing. His interest grows sharply when it’s discovered that there’s a form of ergot growing in the basement of the home. For Stewart it explains some of her family history. For Anderson it’s an exciting possibility for a psychotropic drug. He persuades Genetrix to set up a lab for him and his team and they get to work using the ergot. The end result turns out to be frightening, and it raises the question of how psychotropic drugs are developed and tested and the pressure on researchers to come up with ‘the latest and the greatest.’
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has to deal with ergot in Trick or Treat. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who’s devoted to what she does. For her, bread is real:
‘I make bread, that’s what I do, that’s what I am.’
So she’s shocked and grief-stricken when a young man jumps to his death off a nearby roof after an ergot-induced hallucination. Somehow, ergot-poisoned grain has gotten into a local bakery and Chapman’s own Earthly Delights is one of the suspected sources of the ergot. The police investigation closes the bakery temporarily and Chapman wants to clear her reputation and start baking again. So she decides to look into the source of the poisoned flour. As she does so, readers learn about how bakery flours are bought and distributed.
Elizabeth George’s A Suitable Vengeance features ergotamine, one of the ergot alkaloids. In that novel, Inspector Lynley is planning to bring his bride-to-be Deborah Cotter to the family home Howenstow for what’s supposed to be a celebratory weekend. Everything changes though when local journalist Mick Cambrey is murdered. Then, Lynley’s brother Peter’s girlfriend Sasha Nifford dies of what seems at first like a heroin overdose. It’s not; instead it’s an ergotamine-and-quinine mixture Then there’s another death. As if the stress of investigating three murders isn’t enough for Lynley, there’s a very real possibility that someone in his family is behind it all…
In Morag Joss’ Fruitful Bodies, cellist Sara Selkirk is reunited with her former teacher and mentor Joyce Cruikshank when Cruikshank attends one of Selkirk’s concerts. It’s soon clear that Cruikshank has developed a dangerous drinking habit and Selkirk feels obligated to help take care of her. At first, she invites her former mentor and her dachshund Pretzel to stay in her home. But Cruikshank needs more help than simply boarding with a former pupil for a bit. So Seklirk arranges for her to work at the Sulis Clinic, a new-age and alternative-medicine clinic run by Stephen Golightly. In the meantime, Selkirk’s boyfriend DCI Andrew Poole is investigating the murder of a Japanese tourist Mrs. Takahashi, who was staying at a B&B run by Golightly’s son Ivan and Ivan’s wife Hillary. Then, one of the Sulis Clinic’s patients dies. And there’s another death. Suspicions that Golightly is a charlatan have already been going around and this just makes things worse. Selkirk suspects that the deaths at the clinic have something to do with Mrs. Takahashi’s murder and she turns out to be right. And what does Selkirk find out about the clinic deaths? That’s right – ergot poisoning. Was it accidental? Is someone trying to discredit the clinic? Or is there something else going on?
And then there’s Alison Buck’s Devoted Sisters. Elderly Lizzie Atwell and her younger sister May share their childhood home. They’ve got a safe, well-ordered existence and are happy to keep the modern world at bay. Underneath the surface of their peaceful lives though, there are some dark secrets in their past and hidden resentments. Those secrets start to come to light when the outside world that both sisters have tried to resist starts crowding in. What’s more, the sisters begin to have ‘visions’ that seem to be all too real. Little by little their nicely ordered lives start to fall apart and we learn the truth about what’s gone on in their history. And yes, ergot plays an important role here, too…
And finally, I can’t resist mentioning Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye. No, wealthy Rex Fortescue is not killed by ergot poisoning. He does die of poison though and what’s odd is that his pocket is full of grains of rye. And isn’t the title perfect for this post? ;-) Then, one of the Fortescue servants Gladys Martin is murdered. Then there’s another death. Miss Marple knows Gladys; in fact, she prepared the girl for domestic service. So she takes a personal interest in finding out who and what are behind the murders.
But enough about rye and other grains. It’s all made me quite hungry. Shall we go try out that bakery? They have lovely homemade breads make from privately grown organic grains… ;-)