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

26 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Wine

  1. I recently re-read Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost, and there’s an extraordinary scene in which Albert Campion drinks a very rare and unusual wine: the villain has set this up, because this particular wine has a little-known feature in which it affects certain people in a certain way. I think Allingham invented this – nowadays it’s easy enough to Google about that kind of thing in books, I think when I first read it I would have been wondering if this wine really exists. It’s a most odd and unusual scene.

    • Moira – Interesting! I must admit, that’s a Campion I haven’t read. What an odd-sounding scene though. It certainly does sound like something made up. I can’t imagine it in real life although I suppose it could be possible. I’ll have to check that one out. And yes, Google and other technology means there’s no excuse for a writer not to do the research and be accurate about certain things.

  2. kathy d.

    Another interesting factoid published in today’s New York Times’ magazine is that Agatha Christie’s are the most purchased books in the world — 2 billion to date.
    Could it be that so many readers just love to dive into a book with a dead body in it?

    • Kathy – I’m not surprised. Crime fiction really is incredibly popular. Thanks for sharing that factoid. I could go on and on about the appeal of crime fiction. It tells the stories of humans, and adds layers of mystery and suspense. When it’s done well, it’s irresistible. Or maybe that’s just me…

  3. Margot, an interesting post about wine as a vehicle for poisoning. I never would have thought of that.

    Champagne for One is a favorite Rex Stout mystery. How they determine the murderer is very interesting. The Colin Dexter book was good too. I am looking forward to reading Sparkling Cyanide someday.

    • Tracy – Thanks. I think it’s fascinating too to follow along and see how Wolfe and Goodwin get to the truth about the killer in Champagne For One. I also like the way Wolfe shows his loyalty to Goodwin in that novels. And I do hope you get the chance to read Sparkling Cyanide. I think it’s a good ‘un.

  4. I’ll add another book to the list: Cathy Ace’s ‘The Corpse with the Golden Nose’, which takes place among the vineyards of Lake Okanagan in British Columbia. An award-winning young vintner is killed and gourmet (or do I mean gourmand?) criminology professor Cait Morgan tries to discover what happened in this small foodie (and drinkie) community. It was a very enjoyable read, which enabled me to discover a new part of the world. I just never can seem to resist food and drink in my books. Or in real life.

    • Marina Sofia – Thanks very much for that recommendation. British Columbia is such a beautiful setting, and the foodie/drinkie community is an interesting context too. This is one I should put on my list. I even like the title. And food and drink in books adds to the atmosphere; who’d want to resist??

  5. Great list of books here and good pick for W!
    I especially enjoyed the Dexter book–and the TV episode of Morse that adapted it was good too.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks. And I agree completely about The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. It’s a terrific plot and I love the way Morse gets to the truth in the end. And I’ve always thought those adaptations were great. To me, John Thaw was Morse.

  6. That was one of my favorite Dexter books too. I am sure you have done that topic before: Characters in novels with impediments.

    • Patti – Isn’t it a great book!? And it is interesting to think about characters with special needs like that and how that plays into the plot (as it does here) and their personalities. I should re-visit that topic – thanks.

  7. I’d have sworn Poirot was in Sparkling Cyanide, which just shows how all the TV adaptations begin to merge with the books eventually – I’m sure it’s probably the David Suchet version I’m remembering rather than the actual novel. Time for a re-read perhaps…

    • FictionFan – Your memory is probably not playing you up as much as you may think. Poirot does play a role in Yellow Iris, the short story that Christie later changed and adapted as Sparkling Cyanide. Perhaps you read the short story. And of course, the TV adaptation features Poirot, too…

  8. kathy d.

    British Columbia and wine, quite a combination…intriguing. Now, we know that Montalbano can’t survive without wine, the Brunettis less so, but still do emjoy their meals with wine.
    But, as far as a murder method, haven’t run across this lately.

  9. kathy d.

    Regarding reading crime fiction, I remember a fan who years ago said, “I never read a book unless there’s a dead body in it.” It does spice up a book and compel a reader to finish it.

  10. Remember wine and drugs don’t mix 🙂

  11. Some books I haven’t heard of here, Margot. I love the descriptions of wine drinking in Camilleri’s books. It always wants to make me reach for a glass….

    • Sarah – I couldn’t agree more. Camilleri’s novels really do give the reader such wonderful vicarious eating and drinking experiences. And yes, he makes the wine drinking very real.

  12. Anne H

    It’s a long time since I read The Four False Weapons by John Dickson Carr, but I remember one of them was a bottle of champagne doctored with chloral hydrate. This is an odd book in any case because the author decided to revive the character of Bencolin who appears in his earliest books, perhaps because of the Paris setting.

  13. I just watched a “Lewis” mystery (spinoff of the Morse series), where the wine was laced and given to the WRONG person! The murderer had to keep trying to get it right!

    On 9/8/13, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

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