Spoiler warning: For readers who haven’t read Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington and Lord Edgware Dies I would avoid section one of this post.
Not everyone is a fan of dinner parties. They can be incredibly stressful for the host and/or hostess who are responsible for ensuring everyone enjoys themselves and that the food and beverages are up to standard. There are also people who hate attending such social events, finding dressing up tiresome and the fellow expected guests even more so. Yet as the saying goes there is always someone worse off than you, which is certainly the case when it comes to dinner parties in detective fiction, where attendance can be positively fatal! A few examples which came to mind are Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide (1945) and Three Act Tragedy (1934), Clyde B. Clason’s Poison Jasmine (1940) (where a dinner party enables a killer to poison someone’s food) and Hans Olav Lahlum’s Satellite People (2015). Though for me I think the most gory fictional dinner party can be found in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594) (not a detective novel I know, but it certainly contains tropes and conventions which detective fiction later went on to employ), where Titus takes out his revenge on Tamora by murdering her sons, baking them into a pie and then feeding this pie to her at a supposedly reconciliation feast!
But detective fiction doesn’t use dinner parties solely for bumping characters off. Below are three other purposes I think dinner parties are used for in such fiction:
- Dinner parties are used by characters for ulterior motives.
Killers in detective fiction don’t always use dinner parties to kill their victims, sometimes using them as smoke screens instead. In Lord Edgware Dies (1933), the killer uses a dinner party as an alibi, which her double attends in her place, whilst she kills her husband. Likewise the killer in 4:50 from Paddington (1957) makes everyone (save Miss Marple) assume that it was the curry at the dinner which was poisoned, rather than the earlier cocktails, thereby making the net of suspicion that much wider. On a brighter note amateur sleuths have also been known to use dinner parties as an opportunity for finding out information about the various suspects, the most hilarious example I have read to date being L. C. Tyler’s Cat Among The Herrings (2016).
… though sometimes using dinner parties for their own means has backfired on characters:
Victims in Golden Age detective fiction can frequently be quite unlikeable people, often inviting people to stay or for dinner not out of kindness but because they enjoy manipulating and controlling others for their own amusement. Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936) is a prime example of this, as Mr Shaitana invites four investigators (of sorts) and four other people who may have committed murder in the past to dinner and bridge, reveling in the knowledge he thinks he has. Unsurprisingly the night ends with his death. The Oval Table (1946) by J. Jefferson Farjeon, which I have recently bought and hope to review soon also has a dinner party host who thinks he can toy with others, yet is murdered instead. In this particular story the host in question has been receiving death threats so he decides to invite all the people he knows who he thinks might want to kill him (as you do). Similarly, Gregory Porlock in Patricia Wentworth’s Wicked Uncle (1947), invites his blackmail victims to dine with him, which of course leads to his own death, whilst in The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944), James Paradine decides to issue an ultimatum during a family dinner stating that whoever stole important papers from him, had until midnight to return them. Of course by midnight, Paradine has been killed. Additionally there are also instances where dinners have nearly been the undoing of the detective themselves, as in Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost (1934), Campion’s plans to uncover more evidence that someone is a killer through a dinner, nearly backfire when the killer almost manages to murder him through their extensive knowledge of alcohol.
2. Dinner parties as a vehicle for revealing character disputes and animosities, as well as revealing something of character’s personalities.
Dinner parties are excellent settings for writers to disclose the relationship dynamics between different characters, with patriarchs exercising their tyrannical authority, arguments bubbling under the surface or bursting out into the open, as well as characters delivering well timed social snubs to those they see as beneath them, revealing their own gender, class and racial prejudices in the process. Two examples of this are Cyril Hare’s An English Murder (1951) and Michael Innes’ What Happened at Hazelwood (1946), though I imagine there are many more instances of this, especially in Georgette Heyer’s oeuvre. Additionally writers can also use dinners as an opportunity for their characters to realise home truths about themselves such as in Herman Koch’s The Dinner (2009), where two sets of parents attempt to maintain a veneer of civility as they try to discuss their children’s recent criminal activity and what they should do about it.
3. Dinner parties as an opportunity for characters to discuss murders and propel amateur sleuths into solving them.
One of the most popular topics of conversation it would seem in Golden Age detective fiction dinner parties is murder, with a famous example being several of the stories in Christie’s The Thirteen Problems (1932) which take place at a dinner party hosted by Colonel and Mrs Bantry. In these stories our hosts and their guests (including of course our favourite Miss Marple) share stories about real life murders they know of and invite the others to guess what the solutions to them were. In particular Mrs Bantry’s story is centred on a spate of poisonings which occur during a dinner, leading to someone’s death. Other examples include Michael Innes’ Appleby Talking (1954) which includes stories where Appleby tells anecdotes about cases he purportedly knows of (not all of which are true). Dinners have also been used at the beginning of detective fiction novels as a means of providing a plausible way for a sleuth to hear about a case, which sufficiently pricks their interest and causes them to go onto solve it. John Rhode’s Death in Harley Street (1946) and Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927) are examples of this, as is John Dickson Carr’s He Who Whispers (1946) where Miles Hammond and Barbara Morell are invited to a Murder Club dinner, along with Dr Fell. During this dinner in which those three are the only guests present, the speaker Rigaud talks about an unsolved murder case, which unsurprisingly has serious consequences for those dining.
Over to you
What are your favourite detective novels featuring dinner parties? Let us know in the comments section below.