Sweet and Low (1974), by Emma Lathen

Sweet and Low (1974), by Emma Lathen

WARNING: This book is a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

“Emma Lathen” is a joint pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. I may refer to them here as a singular author, but I know the difference.😉

51a7VsJdTKL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

John Putnam Thatcher is senior vice-president of the third largest bank in the world, the Sloan Guaranty Trust. His corporate responsibilities include the assumption of an important seat on the board of directors of a very large philanthropic trust indeed. The Leonard Dreyer Trust is closely affiliated with the Dreyer Chocolate Company, a huge corporate presence that sells what might be a quarter of the chocolate bars in the U.S.  (If you think of this company as Hershey, you won’t be far off the mark.)

Companies that manufacture chocolate bars must of necessity trade on the Cocoa Exchange, which is a high-stakes enterprise like a mini-stock market, intimately connected with predicting what the price of cocoa beans will be at various points in the future. The individuals who master such valuable skills are few and far between, and although Amory Shaw trades on behalf of Dreyer, because of his experience and brilliance, everyone sees him as the Grand Poobah of the cocoa market.

lathensweetThe town of Dreyer, New York is the home of both the chocolate company and a large part of the action of this novel. First a smaller-scale trader appears to have drunkenly fallen into the swimming pool at his Dreyer motel; theories of accident are soon dismissed when Amory Shaw himself staggers onto the floor of the Cocoa Exchange with a knife in his back and dies without speaking. The police investigate Shaw’s fellow traders, attendant brokers, office staff and personal relationships. Meanwhile, Dreyer has chosen this time to launch a major new product, with a huge advertising blitz for the Old Glory bar. Simultaneously, everyone is annoyed with the activities of a pompous and self-absorbed auteur filming the Cocoa Exchange for a documentary for public television. But it falls to Thatcher to take the larger-scale view of events and figure out just what happened and whodunit.

md16292038904Why is this book worth your time?

I do think it is worth your time; if I can say so without angering anyone, this is a first-rate second-rate mystery, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. The Emma Lathen novels set out merely to entertain and divert without invoking more than glancingly any major social issues or deep characterization values. The author deliberately avoided anything that would bring this novel into the first rank, but for what it sets out to do, it does it extremely well.This is a lighthearted and wry mystery that will amuse you but never upset you.

This is the 15th outing for John Putnam Thatcher and Emma Lathen now has the recipe down pat. There are a few paragraphs at the beginning about the nature of Wall Street.  We briefly meet some of the cast of continuing characters of Thatcher’s associates at the Sloan; his immediate staff, all of whom have personal characteristics that are useful when exposition is required to the reader, and/or his dunderheaded boss Bradford Withers, who is constantly involving the Sloan in projects beyond his capacity to manage that require Thatcher to step in.

As a very senior executive with a taste for detection, Thatcher involves himself in the murder-related business affairs of such things as a chain of take-out chicken restaurants (Murder To Go), biotechnology companies (Green Grow the Dollars), and professional hockey teams (Murder Without Icing). And since he is required to do so without necessarily knowing anything about things like the Winter Olympics (Going for the Gold) or Persian carpets (By Hook or by Crook), the book’s characters are required quite naturally to explain themselves and their industry to Thatcher and hence to to the reader. It all works really well to produce what I’ve called an “information mystery”, where the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look at an unusual background in the course of solving a mystery.

16119697The authors comprising Emma Lathen are a lawyer and an economist, and they definitely seem to know what they’re talking about in business terms. Their mastery of each industry depicted, including here the Cocoa Exchange, seems extensive and they have the knack of making it clear to you without resorting to huge blasts of information. Things come to the reader naturally by seeing the characters doing things and having them explained to Thatcher. Lathen also has the knack of creating simple characters with only a few traits or drives, but ones which the reader grasps immediately. There is also a strong overtone of, “Well, he may ably run a multi-million dollar chocolate company but he’s a nitwit in this particular respect,” and most readers will find this charming and humanizing.

This particular volume is merely the one that was at the top of my Lathen stacks; there are 24 novels in total, from 1961 to 1997. Some are better than others. A couple of my favourites are Murder To Go and Green Grow the Dollars, partly for personal reasons; both books have the ring of truth from my personal experience, and if you can find one that overlaps your own employment history you will enjoy it very much indeed, I’m sure. Lathen is at her best when she is discussing industry, and so ones like Ashes to Ashes, where the focus is on personalities, aren’t as enjoyable for me.

One more subtle problem is found in this book as well as a couple of others. Occasionally Lathen takes on a large industry and wants to show the reader the full supply chain, as it were; this book has a time-wasting narrative thread about people who actually sell chocolate bars for a living, and it has nothing to do with the murder. It veers dangerously close to the author wanting you to “walk out humming the research,” always a dangerous tendency. Lathen is at her best when she’s got a small cast of characters who are at the heart of the action.

28971Finally, she’s generally referred to as a “witty” writer and I have to agree. Her ability to sketch ridiculous characters is excellent; they’re nonsensical and simplified, but believable. She also has the knack of submerging her writing style to the exigencies of the narrative — avoiding the trap of “look at me, I’m writing!” that I find so difficult when, say, P.D. James goes off on the landscape for a page or two — except every once in a while she lets off a line that is wickedly bitter and funny. She lets you find out that characters are funny by what they say and do, rather than by being told that they are funny, and that’s the most enjoyable way to do it for the reader. Overall her writing style is gentle and intelligent.

This is as good a place to start with John Putnam Thatcher as any; if you enjoy your first one, all of them will be worth your time. I’ve enjoyed them all, and they stand up to re-reading.

6617228-MMy favourite edition

Really, Emma Lathen has not been well served by book designers. The Canadian Pocket edition shown at the top of this post (and which I used for this review) is one of a uniform edition that is relentlessly banal. The US Pocket edition manages to get across “business” and “murder” but avoids “chocolate”, which is a keyword for this book. The first US edition from simon & Shuster, depicted here, manages to get across “chocolate” and a little bit of violence, and the typography is very attractive; I’ll say that’s my favourite, but it’s the best of a bad lot. You can have a reasonable copy of it for US$60, which is perhaps a bit high. The UK first from Gollancz, with an overcomplicated ampersand that makes the reader think the title might be “Sweet So Low”, is about US$20.

There are two versions of the UK Penguin cover depicted here;  I haven’t held this book to be sure, but I suspect that the minimalist version that has the chocolate bar coyly peeping out to the left of a white field has the same photograph of the smashed chocolate bar but continued over on the back of the volume. Really a very poor idea — wraparound covers have definitely got a place in paperback design but the whole idea is that you have to be able to tell what you’re looking at from a moment’s glance on the shelves of a bookstore.

There’s definitely room in the publishing world for a uniform edition of this intelligent author and I hope someone reprints her work with some considered design work.


Miss Silver: the coatee, the fichu, and the bog-oak brooch

I must first apologize to my friend and fellow Golden Age mystery blogger Moira Redmond, whose blog, Clothes in Books, is the pre-eminent source for all topics that combine Golden Age mysteries and the clothing therein. This is your turf and not mine, Moira, and I shouldn’t be trespassing, but I had what a ditzy character in an old Rex Stout novel calls an “ungovernment impulse”.  If you are interested in this sort of thing, you’ll find Moira’s blog fascinating, as I do. In the future, I don’t expect to talk about clothes often, but this one topic got me going …


Not Miss Silver, but ladies of the period

Miss Silver is the detective protagonist of 32 books written by Patricia Wentworth; she is an elderly lady who had a career as a governess before becoming a private investigator. Yes, seriously. Here and more recently here, I have commented upon my admiration for her works. But one thing I mentioned casually in the latest post has been stuck in my mind, and I had to do a little research to settle my thoughts — so I thought I would share the results.

One of the things about the Miss Silver books, as I note elsewhere, is that they talk about the same things over and over again. And this absolutely includes Miss Silver’s clothing, a constant source of paragraphs of narrative. We see her in a series of apparently very drab and out-of-date dresses.  Here’s a fairly representative description from 1943’s The Chinese Shawl:

Miss Silver, like Cousin Lucy, wore glacé shoes with bows, and strange thick stockings. She was dressed in one of those flowered garments which saleswomen press upon unresisting elderly ladies for summer wear. In Miss Silver’s case it consisted of a dark green dress lavishly patterned with a kind of Morse code of dots and dashes in orange, magenta, and green. The accompanying coatee was mercifully of a plain dark green. The collarless neck had been filled in with a twist of cotton lace, and was fastened by a heavy oval gold locket-brooch bearing in seed pearls the entwined initials of Miss Silver’s father and mother, now some forty years deceased.


Glace evening slippers with bows

Now, I think this is wonderfully descriptive. We see that brooch in many, many books. Certainly we can see that fabric in our mind’s eye, and the writer’s feeling about it may have been summed up by the word “mercifully” in the next sentence. I suspect that the dark green dress ends just above the glacé shoes with bows. Glacé shoes, incidentally, have a smooth and highly polished surface, and I was delighted to find a picture that pretty much sums them up, although the bows are not what one might wish.  The experienced mystery reader will hearken back to the Agatha Christie title, 1940’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, in which a pair of glacé shoes with bows plays an important role.


Again not Miss Silver, but she is never without her knitting

This is pretty much how Miss Silver is described as being clothed in each of the 32 books, with changes here and there — for instance, when she is in a draught-ridden country house, she relies upon a shabby black velvet coatee to keep her warm in the evenings, and at dinner she changes the locket-brooch for “a brooch of Irish bog-oak in the form of a rose with a large pale pearl in the middle of it”.

For years, I have been taking three words/phrases for granted that Wentworth uses and re-uses to describe Miss Silver’s clothing, book after book after book, without ever bothering to confirm my impression of what they were. The other day I thought, “Damnit, I should really know what a coatee is, since I go on about it so much.” I’ve just done some research, and I thought I would share the results.


This is a black velvet evening cape but could pass as a coatee if it had divided sleeves.

The Coatee

Years ago I used to think Miss Silver’s black velvet coatee was a strange old-maidish garment that merely covered one’s shoulders and tied at the neck; sort of like a scarf with a closure. I was unable to find a picture on the internet that showed such a thing, probably because as near as I can tell, no such garment exists.  It would have been pretty useless anyway.  No, a coatee is — well, okay, let’s call it what it is, a little coat or jacket. I note that it doesn’t have to have sleeves, although I suspect Miss Silver’s did, since she relied on it for warmth. The part that surprised me is that a variant of the coatee is worn by men, frequently with an outfit that includes a kilt.


The ways of the coatee are seemingly various; the closure may be diagonal or vertical, and the shoulders may be puffed or flat. And I will add that no power on earth could compel me to wear those plaid trousers, with or without the formal coatee, even in my own family’s tartan.

The lace fichu

Miss Silver is often said to wear a lace fichu; I had merely consigned that odd word to a category of “women’s clothing names I’ll never need to understand” but now, as I said, I’m curious.

A fichu proves to be “a small triangular shawl worn around a woman’s shoulders and neck”, according to the internet, and meant to fill in the low neckline of a bodice. This certainly seems to go well with the generally out-of-date aspect of Miss Silver’s accoutrements. It’s pronounced fee-SHOO.



Bog-oak rose brooch

The bog-oak brooch

Bog-oak is “an ancient oak tree that has been preserved in a black state in peat”. I understand this as the very early stages of a fossilisation process whereby the wood reacts with the water and turns brown or black and hard to the touch.  It was used for jewelry in the 18th and 19th centuries, although not so much today (it’s still used to make carved tobacco pipes).


Bog-oak rose pendant

I felt fortunate to find two pieces of bog-oak jewelry, either of which could be a match for Miss Silver’s constant companion; neither, alas, features the large pale pearl. I’m not sure why the brooch is silvery; some bog-oak jewelry is said to be lighter in colour, depending upon how long the oak was submerged, etc.

img-thingAnd finally, in an attempt
to see what wonders the internet can sometimes generate at random, I tried a number of Google searches to see if I could find what Google thinks of “dark green dress lavishly patterned with a kind of Morse code of dots and dashes in orange, magenta, and green”. Nothing came very close, but I couldn’t resist sharing this exceptionally … vivid fabric with you. It rather reminded me of a brilliantly graphic coat fabric that Wentworth describes in 1956’s The Silent Pool: “bold squares of black and white with an emerald strip”. The internet is visually silent on that point, and possibly rightly so, since the coat proves fatal to its wearer. I’m sure Miss Silver’s sartorial taste would never run to such garments that would draw attention to oneself, but she does solve the mystery.



Christianna Brand, ripped off

sis-greenfordanger-6The other day I saw an episode of the Father Brown TV programme from the BBC entitled “The Rod of Asclepius” — the central premise of which is taken directly from Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger.  I looked quite carefully and could not see anything in the credits in which they acknowledged this. My knowledge of the British legal system is not what it should be, but if I were administering Christianna Brand’s literary estate, I’d be calling my lawyer to get a lawsuit started.

p03dk434Did they think nobody would notice?


The Dower House Mystery (1925), by Patricia Wentworth

The Dower House Mystery (1925), by Patricia Wentworth

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. I will come quite close below to the solution but, frankly, it will have been fairly obvious to the modern reader anyway. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

29006What’s this book about?

Amabel Grey decides that she must do whatever it takes to get her daughter Daphne to vacation in Egypt with her wealthy boyfriend so that he has the chance to pop the question uninterrupted. In order to come up with the requisite £200, she takes advantage of some frankly preposterous circumstances and agrees to spend six months in a seemingly haunted Dower House. She’s being paid in order to demonstrate that all the people who left the house in the past few years, swearing it was haunted, are just a big coincidence, and so the owner stumps up precisely the fare to Egypt in advance, in cash. Quelle coincidence. But all that was just to get the ball rolling; Daphne disappears, never to be seen again in the novel except via letters from Egypt, and Amabel is left in possession of the Dower House and some increasingly complicated circumstances.


A typical Dower House

Mrs. Brown, the elderly and bedridden family nurse, comes as part of the house’s appurtenances, along with her moody daughter Jenny as her attendant: Mrs. Grey herself brings along the faithful and truculent Ellen to see to her needs (and those of her dachshund Marmaduke) and to provide light comedy. Amabel soon becomes involved — or re-involved — with her former suitor Julian Forsham and some local aristos, since the Dower House is of course a subsidiary building on the estate of the squire, Airedale breeder Mr. Bronson and his family. Amabel, being an elegant and nearly perfect lady in every respect, is immediately afforded the entree to the entirety of local society at its highest levels; Ellen turns out to be related by marriage to some of the locals as well, and thus the household becomes immediately entrenched. Amabel gives every prospect of wanting to rekindle her youthful amours with Julian Forsham, but she cannot leave the Dower House for six months without returning the £200, and she can’t afford it.

Spooky goings-on, of course, start slowly and build in intensity, as does the general air of creepiness among the supporting cast. Amabel must stick it out with a stiff upper lip. Luckily Julian appears to wish to rekindle their romance as well, and they investigate the spooky goings-on together. There’s an episode with a remarkably talented medium, the dachsie vanishes and reappears, and doors keep opening and shutting themselves. The astute — or perhaps even merely competent — reader will have isolated a remark about someone in the neighbourhood forging banknotes and combined it with a knowledge of the plot of any episode of Scooby-Doo to realize that something is Going On in the cellars of the Dower House.  The chief villain arranges a murderous plot that has Amabel writing her own suicide note without knowing it, then vanishing. But the villain’s subordinate female associate betrays the villain and saves Amabel from death, in an exciting climax.

Julian and Amabel get to appreciate each others’ virtues gradually as the case unfolds, and in the final chapter after Julian has popped the question, Amabel learns that Daphne’s boyfriend has similarly come through. Ellen approves comedically and Amabel romantically, and there is a happy ending.

9781911095873_lWhy is this book worth your time? 

I have to confess, there is likely to be only a limited market for this book. I enjoyed the hell out of this, and I earnestly recommend it if you like this sort of thing, but I am sure that this will not be to everyone’s taste.

Elsewhere I have talked about my fondness for the 32 volumes about the elderly governess/private investigator Miss Maud Silver, written by Patricia Wentworth  between 1928 and 1961. I’m very familiar with all those books and have read them numerous times. However, over the years, the 33 volumes by Wentworth that were not Miss Silver mysteries have, by and large, escaped me. Only a handful were ever printed in paperback and, while I was grateful for the chance to appreciate them, I felt that they were really only suitable for Wentworth completists, as it were. (Oh, sorry, I did promise you “no more Mr. Nice Blogger,” didn’t I?  The few I read were tedious and melodramatic, a deadly combination.) I had not felt compelled to seek out the expensive and scarce remainder until recently, when a large number of them became available as e-books. My appreciation for Wentworth’s plotting craftsmanship and clear-spoken writing skills has deepened over the years, and I thought I would pick up a couple of these and give them a try, to see if my potential enjoyment had deepened. It had indeed; I loved this book. Here’s why.

29626500._UY200_I mentioned in the blog post linked above that one of the pleasant parts about the Miss Silver narrative is the way in which every novel is linked to every other novel with repetitive elements. Miss Silver’s home furnishings, the excellent culinary skills of her faithful servant Hannah, and the details of her clothing and jewelry (there’s a black velvet coatee mentioned a number of times that led to my instruction in a whole new area of women’s clothing) are constantly mentioned, as are the progressively more complex lives of her nieces and the three daughters of Inspector Lamb of Scotland Yard.

Obviously that is pretty much entirely absent here, since Miss Silver wasn’t yet invented when this was written. But Wentworth’s instinct even back so far as this, her fifth book, was to begin to accrete characters and ideas into a backdrop that would continue from book to book. If you have a good close look at the illustration of the first edition’s jacket at the head of this post, you will note the back-cover blurb making quite a thing of this; as near as I can tell, two of the characters are from 1923’s The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith and the third is from a book I haven’t yet encountered. Their part in the narrative is minimal, and truthfully is rather wedged in, but … that’s the way Wentworth instinctively builds a series novel, and I found it fascinating.

The other thing that Wentworth does so well is on full display here, and that is the creation of a plot and characters that have a pleasant air of familiarity and yet are quite different. The author doesn’t have to go into great detail because she has the knack of creating one-note characters, and furnishing a room in the reader’s mind by focusing on a couple of well-chosen objects. You understand what the function of the character is; one unpleasant young woman is there pretty much entirely to be disliked by readers and for us to admire the forbearance of Amabel in dealing with her (because Amabel is clearly a lady to her fingertips).

It’s as though this novel was a rough draft or prefiguring of bits of quite a few of the Miss Silver novels. There’s a sturdy and doughty (servant class) housekeeper who is fiercely devoted to her female employer and who will do anything to protect her (this translates as, once per book she initiates a red herring that confuses the issue for a few chapters). There is a faithful dachshund. There is the idea that well-born families’ daughters must marry well, and that this is crucial to the family’s continuance. There is the idea that dangerous and illegal things happen in bricked-up cellars with secret means of access (this one carries through right to The Girl in the Cellar from 1961).  The heroine is a kind of amalgam of many other Wentworth heroines; plucky, upper-class, broke, resourceful, and about to fall in love.


Patricia Wentworth

Most crucially, there is romance and marriage. Marriage, indeed, is the sub-theme of this book. A “dower house” is of course the home of the widow of the estate-owner, after the estate has passed to his son. I don’t think it’s entirely an accident that the blameless widow Amabel is brought to the Dower House to restore its reputation; she is focused on marrying off her daughter and a quarter of the book is devoted to her (rather charming) love affair with her former beau. In symbolic terms, she redeems this house of failed marriages and makes it fecund again. Amabel’s first husband — well, the story is only sketched in, but she made the error of not marrying Julian for love, apparently by marrying an older man of whom her parents approved. Her second marriage shall redeem her first; similarly her daughter is enjoined to marry for love, although Amabel sensibly does nothing to discourage her flighty daughter’s attention from remaining upon the wealthy youngster whom she believes she loves. Amabel’s sister Agatha is said to have married a “little worm” who merely wanted to be comfortably provided for for life and thus urges Amabel to marry for love. Even the housekeeper Ellen’s marital relations figure in the story.

And the ultimate reference to marriage is so melodramatic, it’s actually hilarious. Unfortunately I have to give away some of the plot to share it with you, so you may skip the rest of this paragraph if you feel strongly about that. One of the evil gang is the long-lost twin sister Annie of the elderly nurse’s daughter who lives in the house (don’t worry, this is completely obvious in the book’s context). This is also a repeating theme in the Miss Silver novels; a lower-class woman who marries a villain and is forced to assist him in committing crimes, much to her distress. Annie disappeared years ago because she fell in love with the villain and ran away with him but — and this is apparently crucial — he married her. (“He married me to have a hold on me.”) How we know this is crucial is that at the end, when the villainous plot is coming to its climax, Annie betrays her husband to save Amabel’s life and, as the police are closing in, has an intense scene with her mother whom she hasn’t seen in decades.

“Her husband?” she said in a new voice. “Annie, ha’ you got a husband? Tell me the truth, my girl. Are you a lawful married woman? Have you got your lines?”
Annie lifted her wet face and met her mother’s eyes.
“I’ve got to go to prison, Mother,” she sobbed. “I’ve got to go to prison—there’s no one can save me from going to prison. But I’ve got my marriage lines.”
“The Lord be praised for all His mercies!” said Mrs. Brown.

Praise the Lord indeed. Attempted murder, personation, forgery, a prison term, pfft. But living in sin, now, THAT is a crime. I roared with laughter at this point, although I doubt I was meant to.

30180As I’ve said before, I do enjoy seeing thematic reverberations (all the references to marriage for nearly every character) in a book like this, and honestly I’m a little surprised to find something this professional in a work of this age, so early in the career of this writer. I found it a pleasant experience to notice that this is what she was doing — I’m not fond of deeply buried themes that make me work like a grad student to tease meaning out of them — and to trace the evolution of this concept through all the sub-plots and characters. So this is why, as I say, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. But then, I have a great fondness for Patricia Wentworth novels because I like the way they make me feel while reading them; as though I am in a kinder, gentler world where class differences are sharply marked but accepted by all as appropriate, where the continuation of the social system is of the utmost importance, and where bad people who commit murders are caught and punished, and order is restored. To have that feeling, I’m apparently prepared to sacrifice depth of characterization and believable plot structures; had I been the typical mystery reader of 1925, I doubt I would have missed them for a moment.  As always, your mileage may vary.

Notes on social history

My first instinct was to think that £200 was a fairly small sum, but then I got curious since my touchstone, also from a mystery of this vintage, is that an upper-class unmarried woman could scrape by on £50 a year if she got bought a lot of dinners by young men. I did a little research and found out that if I wanted to pay the equivalent for a trip to Egypt today, the buying power in 2016 Canadian dollars of that £200 is approximately $20,000.  There are a number of ways of doing this translation, so I may have misinterpreted, but it gave me a way to appreciate what the heroine gains by agreeing to spend six months in a “haunted house”. What is singularly impossible to believe is why anyone would pay that sum to achieve the result, but there you go, without it there would be no novel.

What are marriage “lines”?  Find out here.

Notes on publishing history 

You can obtain here the electronic copy of this book from Amazon, which today is selling it for CDN$3.86 with free shipping.  I note the trade paperback edition exists as well, for an average of about CDN$20. No copies are today available on AbeBooks but I see a shabby-looking jacket-less first edition on eBay for about CDN$475 with postage. This seems expensive to me, but perhaps scarcity has a great deal to do with it. To my knowledge, there has never been another paperback edition before this year’s and I do not remember seeing or holding a physical copy in 45+ years.



Murder and Zucchini

I was chatting the other night on the topic of growing zucchini with a friend who also shares some interest in detective fiction. During the discussion, when I realized that I was aware of two connections between the topics of detective fiction and zucchini, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a note. Since detective fiction relies upon surprise, and it seems a shame to spoil anyone’s surprise, I will say that if you read any further you will lose some potential surprise if you ever track down an obscure novel by the obscure author John Rhode called Vegetable Duck, which today will set you back US$150. Consider yourself warned.

Thanks to Wikipedia, I can state fairly authoritatively that the marrow (vegetable, as opposed to, say, bone marrow) is the mature fruit of “certain Cucurbita pepo cultivars”; the immature fruit is called courgette in the British Isles and various countries and zucchini in North America and elsewhere. The foodstuff that I know as zucchini is immature, I gather, and will form a harder skin and become very gourd-like if allowed to come to full maturity. The Internet seems remarkably silent on the topic of what happens when it becomes a gourd — does anyone do this? — but I imagine it would be very fibrous, and treated very much like a squash if you chose to eat it.

zucchini-thisoldhouse.com_Hercule Poirot, of course, in the opening moments of Chapter Four of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) is said to be “interested in the growing of vegetable marrows”, and the reader with a long memory will remember that “vegetable marrows” are literally the final two words of this genre-transforming book. (I shall henceforth refer to these things as zucchini since that’s the word I’m accustomed to use.) Interestingly, they seem to have been first introduced to Europe from the Americas in the very late 19th century, developed into new forms in Italy, and then introduced back into North America in “the early 1920s”.

I think that’s interesting. It may well be that Poirot’s retirement was not, as I’d always thought, because he wanted to learn how to grow vegetables to prize-winning sizes. I’d rather seen him competing full-on for blue ribbons at countryside agricultural fairs, and attempting to bring order and method to the production of enormously oversized zucchini. But if zucchini were … perhaps not the latest thing in every circle, but on the horizon of people with educated palates in 1926, perhaps mentioned in newspapers or on the radio, Agatha Christie might have been saying something about Poirot’s degree of education. I’ll hesitantly suggest that she might have been trying to show him as the kind of middle-aged guy who retires and begins to market some sort of labour-intensive artisanal foodstuff, like fireweed honey or chevre, at very high prices. I can’t say I’m able to really advance this strongly, but it’s interesting to think about.

In fact, in Chapter Four of Roger Ackroyd, we meet Poirot because in a fit of rage he throws a large zucchini over the wall of his garden and nearly hits the narrator.  (And it falls to the ground with a “repellent squelch”, which suggests it was the softer-skinned zucchini with which I’m familiar.) He’s been cultivating them for months and has suddenly become upset with … well, it’s not absolutely clear, but I think we are meant to know that they’re not large enough to suit him. Apparently Poirot and, by extension, Agatha Christie were not aware of a little trick with zucchini that I learned from another mystery writer, John Rhode, in his 1944 mystery Vegetable Duck.

Now Vegetable Duck, for the mystery enthusiast intent upon making zucchini connections with detective fiction, is a very useful book indeed. (I hasten to add that you are unlikely to ever read it, given its current state of availability: it went through a second edition in 1946, probably the “cheap”, and has never been republished. My copy was marked CDN$150; it’s now copyright-free in Canada, where I live, so perhaps I’ll scan it and donate it to archive.org.) I’m not going to go into too much detail about the book itself, but you already know where this is going; I will now spill the beans about the zucchini, as it were.  This book contains a murder that’s committed by poisoning a zucchini.

There are two bits of this that need explaining, though, so you’ll understand the method. The first is that the “vegetable duck” of the title is apparently a wartime recipe. You take a large zucchini, stuff it with minced meat and herbs, and bake it whole. There’s a reference to “a baking tin, containing half an inch of solidified dripping”. I have no real idea why there’s dripping (liquefied fat); My instinct would be to bake this in water, perhaps wrapped in foil, but it’s not clear to me how much meat is in this recipe or why it would leak fat, or how. I cannot think of any way to sensibly make this recipe without slicing the zucchini lengthwise and hollowing it out a bit, but the book jacket suggests that the zucchini is somehow cored and then sliced into rings of zucchini with a central core of filling. And in chapter 6, the housemaid/cook says:

“… [S]he had cut a piece off one end, [of the zucchini] and scraped out the seeds.”

Then notes that she had taken the remainder of a joint of mutton off the bone…

“… and minced it. To this she had added a chopped-up onion, parsley, herbs, and a little dripping. With this mixture she had stuffed the interior of the marrow, which she had then put back in the larder.”

Now, can you imagine trying to scrape out the centre of a zucchini without slicing it in half? This would take me forever unless there’s a specialized tool that does the job, and I don’t know of it. No one mentions that this takes four hours of the maid’s time, though, so there’s something going on here beyond my limited culinary skills.

Courgette_J1The second part is how the zucchini is poisoned and, as I warned you above, this is probably more than you want to know if you ever hope to read this book. I’ve included a photograph of zucchini in situ so you can follow along. Apparently you take a piece of yarn, soak it in liquid and thread it into a sturdy needle, and pierce the stem of a zucchini close to the main body of the plant so that the yarn passes through the stem. Then you put the ends of the yarn into containers of liquid. In some way the zucchini will absorb the liquid from the container via the yarn in its stem, and thereby grow larger than it would ordinarily.

If you’re a grower of vegetables for entering into agricultural contests, your containers are filled with water in order to increase the size of the zucchini so you’ll win the blue ribbon. And if you’re a character in a book, your liquid contains a solution of, say, gelseminine hydrochloride sufficient to kill your enemy to whom you’ve fed vegetable duck.

The osmotic administration via yarn would not be considered entirely sporting in British agricultural circles, I’m sure, which is perhaps why Hercule Poirot didn’t try it. Either that or, more probably, that Agatha Christie had been insulated from the dirtier secrets of the process required to produce prize-winning zucchini.

Now, I can testify from personal experience that just about anyone can grow zucchini just about anywhere; your biggest problem will not be growing the damn things but finding homes for the excess. But what I think is also interesting, and relates very well to the modern age, is one further tweak to the recipe I can add in case you are murderously inclined.

I noticed in my once-over-lightly research in Wikipedia that zucchini naturally contain a toxin called cucurbitacin.  Most zucchini have had the toxins bred nearly out of them. But here’s a quote that might scare you a little:

“Pathologists found cucurbitacin in the stomach of a 79-year-old man who died in Bavaria, Germany, shortly after eating a casserole containing zucchini he had received from a neighbor. The “Chemische- und Veterinäruntersuchungsamt Stuttgart” (chemical and veterinary research authority) found cucurbitacin in a sample of the casserole the man had eaten shortly before his death. Maria Roth of that agency said that recent hot weather had likely stressed the plant, causing more toxin than usual to be present.”

If you could find a way to produce or obtain cucurbitacin, and then introduce it into a particular zucchini using yarn … that would result in an unnatural death with an apparently natural cause. There’s a nifty little mystery there, for anyone who cares to write it. I think I’ll just begin to abstain from zucchini and, most sensibly, never have anything to do with vegetable duck.



Back, a little bit

back-from-hiatusThanks to everyone who was supportive of me and my work at a difficult time … your friendship is appreciated.  I’ve had some time to think, and I’ve decided that the potential pleasure I have in blogging outweighs the drawbacks, at least for now.  Besides, the other writing I’ve been working on hasn’t been going well, and I need something to do😉

I didn’t stop reading and I certainly didn’t stop thinking about books during the time I was away from this blog.  I’ve also been reconsidering what it is that I’m doing with blogging and how I’m doing it — and how I should be doing it to make myself happier with the process and the product.

And so, in the spirit of Bill Maher announcing his “New Rules” at the end of each of his programs, here’s my new rules:

  • My blog is where I do this work. Although I understood from experts that the way to support this work is by talking about it in other channels, that was giving me problems; in future I won’t be talking about this work on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or anything else you can think of.  I have no taste for self-promotion.
  • I will no longer accept free review copies from publishers, not that I had been doing a whole lot of that anyway.  Thank you for your generosity, Chad Arment at Coachwhip, but I need to be distanced from publishers.  Whatever I discuss will be at arm’s-length.
  • Comments — I’m still conflicted.  Apparently I can’t shut them off, and that’s probably wise; this shouldn’t be an ivory tower. I recognize that there are some very nice people out there who want to send me supportive thoughts, and I thank you.  Just warning you in advance that my current instinct is to read comments but only publish them for a specific reason. If I knew what that reason was, I’d tell you; I expect it will have something to do with making a contribution to the topic at hand.
  • No more Mr. Nice Blogger.  And you do NOT want to find out what I mean by that.  If you give me and my work the same respect I give you and your work, we’ll be fine.
  • Finally and most importantly, I’ve realized that in order to bring the right spirit to this work, I have to do it without caring how many people read it.  One of my major mistakes (other than assuming that all my fellow bloggers were truly friendly, which proved not to be the case) was steering myself into writing about topics that would increase my readership. Superficially that seemed reasonable but it was making me very unhappy. I’ve decided that I’m not going to look at my readership figures any more and I’m only going to work on topics that interest me in the way that they interest me.  I certainly hope to please you, but I will insist upon pleasing myself first.

During my hiatus, I’ve also started to get a handle on something that’s been nagging at me for a long, long time. I’m not yet ready to publish about it, but it’s at the macro level of “What are mysteries for?  Why do mysteries exist?”  I’ll share with you a quotation that sparked my thinking, from a modern writer named Denise Mina, and I’ll hope it sparks your thinking too.


Again, thank you all for your kind words during my absence.  I won’t be as prolific as once I was, but I hope to enjoy it more.  Nice to be back.



On hiatus

After considerable thought, I’ve decided to take a nice long break from blogging and from mysteries; I haven’t been enjoying myself lately as much as I used to.  I’m not sure if/when I’ll be back, but I intend to use the time to work on at least one book.

Thanks to all my readers and supporters who have been so kind and generous over the years, and the friends that I’ve made with this work.  I should mention that I would have preferred to disable the comment function, but that’s apparently not possible; however, I won’t be reading or approving any comments in the next year or so, to the best of my current knowledge.

Thanks for your support!

Noah Stewart