Fiction, Original Fiction, Short Stories

A Mendoza Mystery

“I ought to begin by explaining just what I was doing in Argentina.” Rashid Sharif said after setting down his wine glass with care and deliberation, much as a priest would set down the chalice in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Ruth Agu, the tall and fashionable MP for Chipping Barnett, amused herself by presiding over lavish dinner parties every Saturday night. It suited her generous nature and a sense of egotism; she liked playing the part of the queen at a banquet, the mistress of ceremonies. As usual, she had dressed her voluptuous six-foot-two frame in rich fabrics and gold jewellery and sat on a gem-encrusted chair that looked suspiciously like a throne.

On this particular night she had invited three guests linked by a common factor: all three had at some point solved a strange murder. Sir Arthur Allen, a retired Detective Chief Inspector, had solved many in a professional capacity. His name was linked to some of the most infamous and grisly crimes in the British Isles. The two others were amateurs and had solved one each, owing to a combination of brains and luck. Claire Cooper, an Oxford medievalist, had helped nut out the Holy Island Horror. And Rashid, a confectionery mogul, dandy and oenophile, had uncovered the strange and terrible Mendoza Mystery.

“I belong, as you may know,” he said, “To a wine appreciation club here in London. It’s very exclusive—members must pass a stringent exam that includes oenology, soil profiling, chemistry, language, history, etiquette and the rhetoric of wine criticism.”

“From what I have heard,” drawled Ruth, “It is something like the Freemasons.”

Rashid waved a scornful hand.

“My dear Ruth, the Freemasons are as about as exclusive as the YMCA nowadays. This is more like the Knights of the Round Table or the Skull and Bones of Yale. In fact, there are only fifteen living members right now. We meet weekly at a little room on Curzon Street to exchange notes and pick one another’s brains. The advantages of membership are considerable—we are invited to taste wines at the best restaurants, we are sent bottles of by boutique houses who produce the most exquisite vintages. Not infrequently we are invited to visit one of these. Of course, they know that we have influence on buyers but it is really more than that. Most of them can already name their price. It is more that we share an appreciation for the tastes and confirm the quality in a semi-official way. “

“Yes, dear Rashid, but the murder?” Ruth said.

“Yes. In a nutshell, it all started with a little bottle of dynamite that arrived at my house one morning by courier.”

“Not real dynamite, surely?” Claire gasped. Hers was a brilliant but literal mind.

“No, though perhaps it would have been better if it was,” Rashid said. “It was a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley of the Mendoza province of Argentina. The label was handmade and unusual in that there was no information about the vintage at all. It simply featured the black-and-white pen-drawn design of a labyrinth with a Minotaur in its centre. I must admit (though I hasten to add that I would never judge a wine by its label) that I was completely charmed by this drawing.”

“I’d like to see it some time,” Ruth, one of the most avaricious art buyers in the city, interrupted. “May I?”

“My dear lady, you may take it!” Rashid said. “I put it in a drawer and don’t want to set eyes on it again.”

“You exaggerate,” Ruth smiled.

“I assure you, I do not,” Rashid snapped.

Flustered, he smoothed back a silver lock of hair that had come loose and turned a signet ring of carnelian and gold around on the ring finger of his right hand. “But at that time, as I say, I was intrigued—no, fascinated. I opened the letter that had accompanied the parcel. It was written in elegant cursive by the winery’s owner, one Dedalus Brunier. He introduced himself as the scion of a Bordeaux winemaking family. His father had taught him viticulture and winemaking and had early on encouraged his independent scientific researches. The result was, he said (in a tone that seemed to me slightly defensive), that he had set out to produce a wine that would marry the best of tradition with modern science, a wine that would (in his words) transcend any other that had ever existed!”

Arthur Allen twitched his moustache.

“Well, but is that possible?”

“I would not have thought so, Sir Allen, but yes it is. The sip that I took of that unnamed wine…for half an hour I sat at my kitchen table with my mouth open. It was…indescribable. When the shock had worn off, I sent him a reply by email assuring him I’d be there as soon as I could. Not ten minutes later, he had already sent a reply expressing his pleasure in anticipation.

Well, I was so excited that I invited my friend Walter over for a blind tasting. He was amazed—of course he identified it as a Cabernet Sauvignon but he couldn’t guess where it was from and as for the effect, he was as shocked as I had been.

When I told him who the maker was, his face went through a series of contortions. At first it cleared up as if everything was explained. Then it crinkled in displeasure and he shook his head.

“You say you’ve already booked a flight?” he asked.

“Yes, I did it the same day I got his letter,” I replied.

Walter pushed his glass away from him gingerly, as if it contained Polonium. He looked me in the eyes and said in a low voice, “Rashid, I tell you now, for the sake of our friendship and of your own happiness, you must not take that flight.”

“What?” I was amazed. “Why not? Didn’t you just taste that miraculous creation? Walter, you know me, I simply must know more. I will not rest until I’ve seen the soil and placed a hand on one of the oak barrels, until I’ve been a witness to the alchemy of sunlight on vine leaves in the misty southern dawn. Why, this is the ineffable goal of our vocation!”

Walter paced the kitchen, his face strained, thinking carefully of how to word his disagreement.

“I know, Rashid, I know. That’s how it seems to you. The wine is…unusual, I grant you.”

“Unusual?” I scoffed at the inadequacy of the word.

“Of course it would affect you this way. You are the true devotee. Your spirit responds to what is exquisite, beautiful, fascinating in its make-up. It is right and natural that you should want to kneel at the temple.”

“So, what on earth is the problem?” I shrugged.

“The problem,” he took a deep breath, “After the nose of a dancing girl with a rose between her teeth, after the bouquet of parrots in ceiba trees, the chill of Andean snow…after all that, or behind it or under it, didn’t you notice anything else?”

I pondered.

“Well, yes. I noticed a subtle shadow, a movement, as of a Leviathan passing beneath a rowing boat. Of course,” I shrugged, “This only added to the attraction.”

“And? The scent of brimstone?”

“Sulfur, of course. But exaggerated to glorious, outlandish dimensions, just like all the other elements. Each aspect becomes larger than life, larger than imagination even.”

“My dear friend,” said Rashid with that serious face that was really starting to get on my nerves. “That is the smell of fair warning. If you like, it is the smell of Evil.”

I stared at the man, wondering if he’d lost his mind.

“What do you mean?”

He shook his head sadly.

“I can’t say more than that.”

“For goodness’ sake, don’t be so vague and dramatic,”

“I told someone close to me that I wouldn’t tell. You have to trust me as your friend.”

I laughed, thinking that this must be some kind of silly prank. But he took me by the shoulder and shook me angrily. His face was purple.

“I’m serious Rashid! You must not go to Mendoza!”

I wriggled free from his grasp and looked at him with horror. I had never thought that Walter was suffering from delusions. He’d always been expressive and dramatic but not to this absurd extent and for no reason.

Then a terrible thought struck me. He was jealous! He envied my discovery. Either he planned to go in my stead or, like the dog in the manger, he wanted to deprive me of what he couldn’t have.

“I’m sorry, Walter,” I said haughtily, “But I will go to that vineyard. Frankly, I think your objection absurd—at best.”

Walter wilted. He understood.

“You suspect my intentions? Then already the poison is having its effect.” He sighed and looked into my eyes once again, searching for a hint of our old friendship. “You’ll remember what I’ve said, won’t you? And if—when—something terrible odd happens, something you can’t quite explain…look out for yourself.”

“I promise,” I said scathingly, “That if Señor Dedalus turns out to have a forked tongue and cloven hoof, I’ll think of you.”

To my surprise and consternation, he seemed to be choking back tears. He spontaneously threw his arms around me and held my face in his hands, studying it as if for the last time. He kissed my cheek, then dropped his arms by his sides in a gesture of defeat.

“Goodbye, my friend,” he said and turned away.

This meeting seriously annoyed me, not least because it half spoiled my exhilaration at tasting wine and the prospect of going to Mendoza, which was effectively identical to the thrill falling in love. Walter had deliberately thrown a wet blanket all over my fire of passion and for this I found it hard to forgive him. I decided not to tell anyone else at the club in order to avoid more unpleasantness.

“Damn the man,” I muttered to myself. “Why should I be made to feel low and skulking? It is my duty according to our Oath to pursue with the best wines of the world.”

I decided to go ahead as I’d planned, to return with notes and sample bottles and to triumphantly present it to the club. It would be a fait accompli, and to hell with Walter’s envious objections.

By the time I arrived in Mendoza, I had almost forgiven Walter for his outburst. The novelty of the sights, sounds and smells of Argentina had dazzled my senses and put me in a generous frame of mind. And then, from the moment I met Dedalus, I was so swept up by his charm and enthusiasm that it was impossible to think of anything else.

Dedalus Brunier was an elegant figure whose clothes fitted so well that they seemed an organic part of his person. He looked to be in his mid-fifties and was smaller than average with a shock of wavy grey hair on the verge of mutiny. He moved with the easy, efficient grace of a waiter at a good restaurant or of a gymnast. In all his gestures, his eyes and words there was a suppressed electricity that gave the impression that something extraordinary was about to happen—a revolution or miracle or cataclysm. This was partly due to his habit of taking me aside by the arm and talking in low tones, like a conspirator.

“Tell me, Mr. Sharif,” he murmured, “What do you think of my little wine? Ah!” He held up a finger, arresting my response, “There is no need to hold yourself back. I welcome criticism. Especially from one of your calibre.”

I thought this somewhat disingenuous considering I’d already praised the wine to the skies in our email correspondence, but as a matter of courtesy I repeated in detail the wonders of my initiation into that superlative taste, the first effects of the elixir he had wrought. He listened in rapt attention, his dark eyes thirstily absorbing my words. Finally, he threw up his hands as if releasing a dozen doves.

“Perfection! Mr. Sharif, today you have made me very happy. Yes, very happy. In these few words, you have managed to conjure the very essence of my life’s work, the expression of which I first felt only in my soul but after these many years have succeeded in wrestling from the soil, from the fruit, from labour and fortune. After so many disasters, failed attempts, mistakes, it was realized. But until I heard your words, I did not feel the sweetness of my success. You see, you understand!”

He seemed genuinely moved. Pushing aside my initial embarrassment, I felt the warm glow that rises between fellow enthusiasts.

“Mr. Dedalus,” I said, “That is why I’ve come here, to spread the gospel. Thanks to my connections, your creation will be known for the triumph of winemaking in our age. I plan to make you famous!”

I should at this juncture take a moment to describe the house where he lived. It was in the Uco Valley in Mendoza, near a big more commercially oriented vineyard whose premium wines sold well in fancy restaurants and whose box wine graced dinner tables throughout the world. At one corner of this large vineyard, Dedalus’ section occupied a conical hill, a little like a tumulus or earthern pyramid. The mound was terraced carefully so as to maximize growing efficiency.

What’s more, I noticed on approaching the property that the soil gave off a distinctive odour. There were hints of sulfur but also of chalk, white roses and something sickly and repellent, rather like an open-air abbatoir I’d seen in Morocco. It was the kind of dark olfactory  mystery I was looking for when I came to explore the terroir, and my heart started beating faster in anticipation of what I would learn.

“My friend,” said Dedalus as we strolled through the trussed up vines, “Can you guess how old these plants are?”

I eyeballed them and made a quick guess, confident of the ballpark.

“They’re three years, roundabout. The right size, the green vigour, the tell-tale color of the budding leaf.”

He smiled slyly, like a child who has successfully duped an adult. He shook his head.

“Guess again!” he cried.

“They are certainly no more than five. The limbs are still green and flexile, not a trace of woodiness.”

“In fact, Mr. Rashid,” he said with barely disguised delight, “They are a hundred and fifty years old.”

“What?! I don’t believe it!” I cried. And I didn’t. I was offended that he would think I’d fall for such a big lie. No grape vine on earth produces decent wine after more than 70 years. And besides, he himself had told me that he’d only acquired the vineyard a few decades ago.

“How old are they really?” I asked.

“Really they are a hundred and fifty years. They were planted in the year 1870 by—well, it doesn’t matter who, but this is the truth. Not only is it the truth, but it is the secret of the wine’s very success!”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said. “What do you mean?”

He laughed and tapped the side of his nose with a finger. “Do you suppose I would part with my secret so easily? Have patience, my friend, and it shall perhaps become clear.”

Mystified, I brooded on his words and was hence only listening with half an ear as we continued walking and he pointed out the vines, the special methods of cultivating them, the influence of local weather patterns, and so forth.

In the distance, the snowy peaks of the Andes stood like ancient guardians of the valley. They were not going to give up their secrets either, I could tell just by looking at them.

By the end of our little tour, I was feeling quite fatigued. My shoes were not designed for long hikes and, besides, my mind had been running around in circles trying to discover what Dedalus meant by saying the vines were 150 years. I said I felt the need of a little rest and he showed me to my room and pointed out an electric bell I could ring if I needed anything. We settled on meeting in the banquet hall for a tasting session at seven o’clock that night.

While folding up my jacket and setting it on a chair by my window, I happened to see something that made me freeze like a statue. There, walking along the path below my window, was Walter! He was disguised, wearing a pair of faded blue overalls and with his long hair cropped short, but there was no doubt about it. The handsome, ox-like face, the height, the grace of his movements: these all belonged to my erstwhile friend.

He was walking from the main house to the large barreling shed, carrying a hammer and a set of keys. There were about four different locks on the door and he unlocked each one with a practiced hand. Then he looked around him, entered and closed the door behind him.

After my initial amazement, I was consumed with indignant anger. That snake-in-the-grass had gone to great lengths to dissuade me from coming here. When that didn’t work, it seemed he’d smuggled himself into the staff and now he was actually snooping around the barrels, no doubt collecting samples for analysis.

For a few minutes I sat down on the chair, heedless of rumpling my jacket, and wrestled with my conscience. After all, despite our recent falling out, Walter had been a dear friend for many years. On the other hand, what he was doing was certainly criminal and could potentially compromise Mr. Dedalus’ business. Mr. Dedalus was my host and, what’s more, a charming person. Suddenly, too, I realized that if Mr. Dedalus discovered my friendship with Walter, he would immediately think we were colluding against him. The prospect horrified me. My reputation would be ruined! I cursed Walter’s foolishness and pushed the bell.

“My dear Mr. Rashid! What is the matter? Are you feeling well?”

Shortly afterwards, my host appeared in person. His happy beam faded as he saw the anguish on my face.

“I am not, I’m afraid. I have bad news, Mr. Dedalus. The fact is, I have just seen an intruder enter your barrelling shed.”

He left. In a few seconds a piercing whistle filled the house. Dozens of people dressed in blue overalls appeared. I hadn’t seen any of them before and was surprised that his staff was at once so large and so discreet.

“An intruder!” he exclaimed. “I have been afraid of exactly that. Thank you and please, excuse me.”

Walter emerged from the door still holding his hammer and I expected him either to flee or to attack his assailants. My heart was in my mouth, fearing that he would meet his death there in Mendoza and that I would bear responsibility for it. But, as it happened, after a few heated words, he shook his head. The leader of the blue-overall brigade touched him on the shoulder in a friendly way, then Walter shrugged and went back inside with a couple of other men. They were in there for about five minutes. My eyes remained fixed on the door and finally they came out together, all laughing and joking. They said a few words to the crowd, which then dispersed as quickly and quietly as it had appeared.

I was now thoroughly confused. Somehow, Walter had convinced them that he was genuinely a member of the staff. It became clear to me that I ought to speak privately to Dedalus to tell him the risk he was running.

Again, I pressed the button. After three or four minutes, Dedalus appeared again, all smiles.

“I am happy to say that we have searched the shed thoroughly and there was no one there except Mr. Lyons, my right-hand man.

“Mr. Lyons? Is he quite a tall fellow in overalls with a broad forehead and a Roman nose?”

“Yes, that is he,” my host nodded.

“I regret to inform you, then,” I said with a heavy heart, “That the man you know as Mr. Lyons is in fact Walter Boniface of London. I don’t know why he should be here under false pretences but I’m sure it is against your interests to give him free reign of your establishment.”

Dedalus frowned.

“Walter, you say? But my friend, that is impossible! Mr. Lyons is my oldest and most trusted employee. He helped me plant the first vines so many years ago! He has not left the vineyard for more than a week at a time. I’m afraid you are mistaken.”

I gaped at him.

“A case of a doppelgänger, that is all,” he shrugged. “And lucky for us that it is so, eh?” he laughed. “Forget it. In one hour, you will come downstairs to the banquet hall and I will present to you Mr. Lyons and to some of our vintages, yes?”

“Yes, of course,” I murmured, forcing myself to break out of my trance to answer as civilly as possible.

He departed in a buoyant mood and I was left in a fog of misapprehension. A doppelgänger? Could that be it after all? A coincidence of fairly giant proportions. It didn’t satisfy me, not at all. It was then that I remembered Walter’s warning to me:

If—when—something odd occurs, something you can’t explain, be careful!

Already, two odd things had occurred: Dedalus’ assertion that the vines were 150 years old and now Walter-who-wasn’t-Walter. What did it all mean? And be careful of what, exactly? Determined to forget the situation for a moment, I pulled my dog-eared copy of Donaldson’s Wine Guide from my briefcase, threw myself into an overstuffed chair and lost myself in the old familiar lines.

At a ten to seven, the dinner gong sounded downstairs. I dressed with care and descended with a renewed sense of anticipation. Already my initial excitement had returned and the strange dread occasioned by the afternoon’s strangeness had receded. After all, a lot of people resemble others. And prior to my journey I had been admittedly a little obsessed with Walter’s bizarre Beware-the-Ides-of-March routine. I had strained my mind and so was inclined to see Walters everywhere, that was all. Not only that, but the window of my room was a little dirty and smeared with the dust of ages. Probably that had obscured my view.

Such were my thoughts as I entered the banquet hall such as they were, they immediately vanished when I met Walter there, for now I was sure it was him and him alone. He stood up smiling to greet me and extended a hand.

“How do you do?” he said. “My name is Bernard Lyons.”

“Like hell it is!” I snarled. “Your name is Walter Boniface and you are playing some kind of elaborate prank! I demand an explanation for your behaviour.”

I glared at him expectantly. To my astonishment, the man laughed a little and even slapped and on his thigh. His teeth looked unnaturally white in his sun-browned face.

“Of course!” he cried. “I should have guessed.”

“I see nothing funny about it whatsoever,” I said grimly.

“No, no, of course,” he assumed a serious expression. “Look, but it all makes sense! You’re a friend of my brother. That’s why, when you saw me enter the shed, you assumed I was intruding. You see, he’s my identical twin. You know him as Walter but his given name is Ralph Lyons.”

I looked at him suspiciously, not sure if I could credit such a bizarre statement. But now I noticed that the back of his neck was brown and leathery from long exposure to the sun, whereas Walter wore his hair long and his skin had been rather pale. And his hands, too, were calloused and wrinkled. Walter’s had been as white and slender as a girl’s.

“Walter never mentioned having a brother,” I said dubiously.

“I imagine,” said Bernard, “That he never mentioned family at all. Did he?”

I had to admit that this was true.

The man dug into his pocket and produced a wallet, from which he extracted a print of a painting of two angelic little boys, both dressed like Ottoman generals, riding a toy horse and waving little swords.

Jeanne Vergouwe, Portrait of twins riding wooden little horses oil on canvas, 1668

“That’s us when we were five,” he smiled. “I keep it with me to remind me of happier times. Tell me, when did you first meet Walter?” 

“About twenty years ago.”

“He used to work here, you know.”

“Did he?” I was starting to believe him in spite of myself. His eyes were wide and limpid.

“Yes, we both joined at the same time, when we were still in our teens. It was our dream to plant our own vines. Dedalus already had a reputation for genius and we thought we would do well to follow him.”

“So, what happened? Why did Ralph leave and change his name?” I asked.

Bernard shrugged. He crossed over to a table where several bottles sat breathing out in readiness for the tasting. At that moment, Dedalus entered.

“Shall we begin, gentlemen?” he asked, rubbing his hands together.

That night I lay awake for hours. It was not because of my excitement over the wines. No, that had been eclipsed by what I’d learned of Walter. He was one of my oldest friends and now I realized that everything I thought I’d known of him had been a lie: his name, his background (he always insisted he’d been born in Spain). Nor was I satisfied by Bernard’s casual explanation of his departure for England. There was something in Bernard’s face that suggested it was a lie, that story about him leaving on a whim. Something, I was convinced, had happened. And now that I had his name, Ralph Lyons, it might be possible to get to the bottom of it.

The next day was a Monday. As soon as I’d dressed, I sent a message to Deirdre, a close friend of mine who works as a librarian. I asked if she could locate for me any news stories containing the name Ralph Lyons.

Downstairs, bright and fresh at the breakfast table sat Dedalus. He told me he had a full day’s programme mapped out for us. He’d invited experts to lunch with us and discuss the composition of the local soil. Then he would take me to the vineyard’s archives.

Lunch was a pleasant enough affair, Dedalus’ personal chef was of a calibre that you might find at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The pairings were analogous to duets played by two virtuosos in perfect sympathy in their prime. But though my mouth watered and my nose was bewitched, my mind was perpetually busy with the puzzle of Walter’s true identity.

Over dessert, a dulce de leche macaron, my phone vibrated and I excused myself to take a cigar outside. Standing under a rose-laden bower, I checked: it was Deirdre. She said she’d found a few matches but nothing from Mendoza in the period I’d mentioned: no birth announcements, no mentions of any kind. Disappointed and puzzled, I put my phone away and gazed a few moments at the looming peaks of the Andes.

Was Bernard Lyons lying? Was Walter not his twin brother? It occurred to me that there was a way I could check—quite easily—whether Bernard and Walter were one and the same person. I called Walter on a video chat. He answered immediately.

“Rashid! Hi! What a surprise!” he exclaimed.

I was conscious of a feeling of awkwardness.

“Hi! Walter, listen…” my mind was working, trying to buy time as I checked him out. “I wanted to apologize to you for my behaviour the other day, you know, losing my temper like that.”

His hair was still long, his face was still pale, the hands soft and pale. He was in his kitchen in his central London apartment. Through his window, I saw a double-decker bus go by. It was Walter, and Walter was not Bernard.

“Oh, don’t mention it!” he waved a hand. “So how are you? How was the flight? Everything OK?” he asked and his face had assumed a worried expression. I had half a mind to share my thoughts with him then and there, but something in me resisted.

“Oh, yes, everything’s tip-top,” I said. Looking up, I saw Bernard walking towards me. “Listen, I have to go…just wanted to make sure things were OK between us. I’ll call you later. Ciao!!” I hung up quickly, not wanting Bernard to see who I’d been calling.

Bernard nodded a greeting. In the sunlight I could see once and for all that he definitely wore no disguise and even looked very different from Walter in some respects. His skin was leathery and brown from countless days spent in the summer sun. His hands were brown, and calloused. His eyes had none of the romantic, limpid quality characteristic of Walters. Instead, they were rather hard, with a boring intensity.

He nodded a greeting.

“So, you’re a friend of Ralph, eh? How’s he keeping these days?”

I had the uncomfortable sensation that he’d been reading my mind.

“He’s good,” I said as naturally as possible. “You know…healthy, good job, owns his own apartment, a lovely spot near Piccadilly. He’s one of the country’s leading wine critics. Well,” I laughed, “I’m sure that comes as no surprise.”

“And what sort of work does he do these days?” Bernard asked lazily. “That he can afford an apartment like that?”

I realized, with a flush of embarrassment, that I didn’t know. I’d always assumed that he’d had family money. Our friendship was a longstanding one but it was firmly rooted in our mutual interest in and passion for wine, nothing else. Well…that is not strictly true. We cared for one another too, of course. It was just that our friendship had grown up out of wine, was nourished by wine and needed little else to flourish.

“I believe,” I hesitated, reluctant to admit my ignorance, “He has an important position in finance. He doesn’t talk shop much—I assume so as not to breach confidentiality.”

Bernard smiled wryly. “Sure. Well, I’m happy he’s made such a success of himself.”

He took his hands out of his pockets and one was holding a set of car keys.

“So, Dedalus suggested I drive you to the archives. Unless you wanted coffee first?”

“No, no, let’s go,” I said.

We walked to a silver sports car very sleek and low to the ground. For the first five minutes we were silent. The drive was incredibly smooth, the spectacular landscape seemed to fly by. I was starting to enjoy myself when Bernard started humming a little tune. I recognized it as “Le Veau d’Or” from Gounod’s Faust. It seemed to me that he was humming it in an unpleasant, insinuating way and wished that he would stop.

I decided to make conversation to stop the humming.

“So…these archives. What sort of information do they contain?”

Bernard didn’t answer, he just smiled in a way that was a little grotesque.

I was a annoyed at the vague insolence of his response but was determined not to show it. “I suppose it’s records of the land and the like, things like where the vines were sourced from and the chemical composition,” I was babbling, I knew, but the sound of my own voice was comforting.

The car stopped abruptly outside of an architectural curiosity, a very low pearl-grey building with tinted windows.

“Here it is,” he grunted.

We got out and as we crunched over the gravel I had the feeling, the image flashed into my mind of a man being led unwittingly to his execution.

He unlocked the entrance door with an electronic key and I stepped into a vast hall whose ceilings were very high and of glass, so we were standing under the blue cloud-scudded sky. I gasped.

“The building looks low from the outside,” Bernard explained, “But its walls are made of tall mirrors. It’s a trick.”

“A little like a trompe-l’oeil,” I nodded appreciatively.

“Anyway,” he looked at his watch, “Dedalus said I should show you a film

We entered an auditorium with seating for about 200 people. He showed me to a seat and then left to go through a door at the back. I suppose it was the projection room.

The movie began with a bird’s eye view of the vineyard—a leafy expanse with the snowy mountains in the background. Then it switched to an oil painting, supposedly done in 1795, by a well known portrait painter. I knew it must be a joke because the proprietor in the painting was Bernard himself. He was dressed in old fashioned clothes but it was certainly him.

Baron Antoine Jean Gros (French, Paris 1771–1835 Meudon) François Gérard (1770–1837), later Baron Gérard, 1790 Oil on canvas; 22 1/8 x 18 5/8 in. (56.2 x 47.3 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2002 (2002.441)

The movie continued, describing the business’s various setbacks and successes. From the late 1800s there were daguerotypes of the land. These also featured figures that looked just like Dedalus and the Lyons twins. It was like that the whole way through: in each period the same people appeared without having aged at all. In the 1920s they wore bowler hats. In fact, in 1926, there was old film footage of a horse-drawn coffin.

“Then, in 1926, tragedy struck: Ralph Lyons died of tuberculosis.” I read the English subtitles with disbelief.

The film rolled right along. In the ’50s they were in polo shirts, in the 1990s they were in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. I noted in passing that Ralph Lyons had left the vineyard in 1926 “for personal reasons”.

The thing was intriguing. I wondered at the effort the filmmakers had gone to in constructing such an elaborate illusion. Why? Was it to make the vineyard seem older than it really was?

When the movie ended, the room suddenly flooded with natural light. I saw that Dedalus had entered and was making his way down the aisles towards me.

“Well, what did you think?” he asked with his usual smile.

“Fascinating! I was wondering who the director was. They did an excellent job, it all looked quite convincing.”

“What was that? Convincing? Well, of course! It’s a documentary. It’s real,” he shrugged.

“But Mr. Dedalus, I mean…the gist might be true but the way you and the Lyons brothers kept appearing in every decade without aging in the least, I mean that was really clever cinema.”

“Like I said,” Dedalus spoke slowly, smiling slyly, “It is all completely true.”

I was now convinced that he was trying to con me but I didn’t quite know how to contradict him without creating an ugly scene. After all, I was still his guest. So I shrugged and smiled and hoped that we might change the subject.

“That is what I wanted you to see, Mr. Rashid,” Dedalus said softly. “The truth about me, about us. I thought that you would be someone who could comprehend, in a way that most ordinary people couldn’t.”

My toe started twitching with impatience but I exerted some self control.

I waited for him to go on.

“This is not just about wine,” said Dedalus in a stronger voice. “This is about you and your potential. You have before you a choice, my friend! Sit down, let’s watch some more.”

Suddenly the lights went out again and the screen was filled with golden flames. I froze in place, clutching the arms of my seat, not completely sure of what was happening.

A woman’s voice calm, suggestive and assured oozed over us.

“Has it ever occurred to you how much you might do if you had more time? What about if you had many centuries more time? One of the tragedies of mortal life is how briefly our brightest lights burned. Mozart—dead at 35, Catullus at 30, Evariste Galois at 20! What if they had been allowed to live, how much they might have shown us, how much they might have done.”

Dozens, hundreds, thousands of faces flashed across the screen in fast, flickering motion.

“Now you may choose anonymous, futile oblivion or you may choose an eternal life in which you are able to create masterworks, solve theorems, invent machines all for the greater benefit of humankind.”

The screen showed a helicopter, a defibrillator, an intubator, a cellphone and dozens of other everyday items. Finally, it showed a bottle of Dedalus wine.

“This is the product of what ordinary men can do with 150 years. It is the best wine you have ever tasted. You know why? Because one team has devoted that amount of time to one project: testing, developing, improving it without interruption, without the informational loss that accompanies the physical loss of a life. The elixir that you can’t believe is real, is real. It’s a miracle that whispers to you of your own potential. Don’t ignore that whisper.”

The film ended.

Dedalus turned to me.

“Don’t ignore that whisper, Mr. Rashid.”

“What are you saying?” I asked.

“I want to propose a partnership with you.”

“What kind of a partnership?”

“Join us,” he said simply, “And live forever!”

“I’ll have to think about it,” I said.

“Of course, of course,” he patted my sleeve. “It is not something to do lightly. I understand. But I will also tell you, you won’t regret it! Come, let us head off to the house. You must be tired.”

“Yes, yes,” I said faintly, “I do feel tired.”

When we got back to the house, Dedalus offered me a liqueur to assist my sleep. I drank it like an automaton and went up to my bedroom. I texted my librarian friend Deirdre and told her I urgently wanted information about a vineyard in Mendoza in 1925 or 1926. She promised to find out within a half hour.

Then I must have drifted off to sleep because the next thing I knew, my phone was ringing and buzzing in my hand, just in time for me to see Bernard Lyons come into my room with a hammer in his hand.

Despite my drowsiness, adrenaline forced me into action. I took a picture of him and sent it to Walter.

“I have just sent a picture of you to your brother, Mr. Lyons. He will transmit it to the police. I’m afraid that if anything happens to me, things will not go well with you.”

He dropped the hammer on the floor and laughed.

“Why, Mr. Rashid! What do you mean? I was simply coming to ask whether you were comfortable!”

“In fact, I am very far from being comfortable. I would like you to leave. I am leaving this den of weasels in five minutes flat.”

He left and I quickly stuffed my belongings into my bag. I also took a pill to keep me awake and to counter the fluffy feeling in my head. I half expected Bernard to brain me with some other implement the moment I stepped out of the door, so instead I escaped through the window. I knew it was a few kilometers to the nearest village but I was prepared to get a few blisters for the sake of my life.

As I walked along the dusty road, the phone rang. It was Walter.

“Are you all right, Rashid?” he asked breathlessly. “The police are on their way.”

“Excellent, then I won’t have to walk so far after all.”

Back in London a few days later, I asked Walter to come clean with me.

He looked haunted. Unusually for him, he hadn’t shaved and looked thinner.

“I hoped he wouldn’t do it. I believed he’d changed,” Walter shook his head sadly. “The temptation was too strong, I suppose.”

“You’d better tell me about it from the beginning,” I said.

He nodded.

“Dedalus was born in 1750, the son of a French aristocrat from Bordeaux who’d attended the Academy of Bordeaux, determined to discover the perfect methods for creating wine. He taught his son everything he knew and instilled in him a passion for scientific investigation into the art of growing grapes.

“My father discovered something remarkable, that the fabled Phlogiston exists, though the process of distilling it had been soiled with medieval superstition. After years of experimentation, he used the distillate to create an elixir that effected rejuvenation. Unfortunately, this elixir also required the extract of a human marrow bone.”

“How did he…acquire this…?” I stammered.

“Our poor mother,” Walter said with a catch in his voice. “Once he had discovered this, he couldn’t be stopped. He fed the formula to us as infants. Bernard and I are his sons,” he said. “The three of us are immortal.”

“My father was on the verge of presenting the formula to King Louis XVI. He hoped to become a member of the court. After all, with his secret, what monarch would be without him? But then the Revolution broke out.

“Our family fled to North America. My father was distraught because we had to leave our instruments behind. In a way, he’d left his powers behind. We kept moving south, ending up in Argentina. It was here that he began his life’s work: the vineyard.

“But after a hundred years, he noticed something: he was starting to age. So were we. He figured out that he needed to make another sacrifice. There was a woman who worked on the vineyard. Her name was Eloise. She was a kind-hearted, simple woman, devoted to my father.” He hung his head.

“Bernard killed her with a hammer. I didn’t know about it. They knew I was squeamish, that I might report it to the police. My father prepared the solution and I’d drunk it before I knew what it was. Eloise’s husband suspected something, though. He came around asking for her. He became an annoyance to my father. And one day he stopped coming around. I decided then that I didn’t want any more part in his world. I left for Europe.”

“In 1926,” I said.

“Yes,” he nodded. “And now, I suppose, they were starting to feel the effects wearing off again and they needed another sacrifice. I shouldn’t have let you go,” he said.

“You tried to stop me,” I said.

“Not hard enough,” he had tears in his eyes.

“I wouldn’t have believed you,” I scoffed and hugged him. “But there’s one thing I’ve been wondering. Why me? Couldn’t they kidnap any local and brain them with a hammer?”

“I’ve been wondering about that,” said Walter. “And I believe I know the answer. My father cares about wine. It is my belief that he had so honed the process that he wasn’t satisfied with the marrow of any old human: he needed the marrow of a connoisseur.”

The guests all shivered at the conclusion of the story.

“Well!” said Ruth “I sincerely hope you keep an eye on your colleagues at your wine appreciation club!”

Detective Fiction, Fiction, Original Fiction

The Missing Wife: A Murder Mystery

“Well, Arthur, what do you have for us this evening?” Ruth smiled toothily at the retired detective who sat at the head of the table.

Ruth Agu, MP for Chipping Barnett, had the imposing appearance and personality of a Nigerian queen. She was dressed in an ornate gold headwrap, nude lipstick, a luxurious gold necklace and wide gold bangles. Her gown was similarly shiny and extravagant.

“Ah yes, I forgot I was to sing for my supper,” said Arthur Allen, who suddenly looked like a mournful Airedale terrier. “This cake is excellent, by the way. What is it?”

Charlotte aux fraises, but don’t dodge the issue,” Ruth replied crisply. “I promised my guests you’d have a juicy one for them over coffee. They’ll be very disappointed otherwise.”

The guests aforementioned were Claire Cooper, a shovel-faced Oxford professor specializing in medieval British manuscripts, and Rashid Sharif, a plump dandy known for his wine expertise. They smiled apologetically at Arthur.

Arthur cleared his throat and patted the corners of his mouth with a gaudy napkin. Then he bowed to his hostess.

“When Beauty sounds the clarion, Age must heed her call” he said gallantly. “Let’s see now,” he said as he saw Ruth’s manicured fingers start tapping impatiently. “In honour of this excellent French cake, I will relate one of the most perplexing cases of my career, which happened in France, in the town of Chamonix.”

“Ah,” Rashid smacked his lips, “Home of the Altesse grape and the Rousette de Savoie. A sensory foray into the mountains, an immersion in the fragrance of rock-warmed herbs, honey and hazelnut.”

“It was,” Arthur continued, “The summer of 1994. The first week of June. We had a call from the Gendarmerie Chamonix-Mont Blanc, Superintendent Arnand Favre, who told me that Sarah Mills had disappeared. At that time, you see, I was head of homicide in Redbridge, where Sarah and Gerard Mills lived.”

“Why were they in Chamonix?” asked Claire Cooper, frowning.

“Let me begin again. Gerard and Sarah Mills were a newly married couple from Redbridge who had decided to have a holiday in Europe that summer. They’d set off on June 1st, crossed France with no incident until the night of June 12, which is when Sarah was last seen alive.”

“So the husband did it,” Claire said, pushing her spectacles back up the nose down which they’d slid.

“Well,” Arthur nodded, “It does tend to be the way. Nine times out of ten the culprit is the husband or romantic partner, certainly. It was our working assumption when we got the news. And, indeed, Gerard Mills confessed.”

“So far this isn’t much of a mystery, Arthur,” Ruth frowned, swirling her glass dangerously.

“Pardon me,” he said, “I seem to be having trouble getting started. Perhaps I had better tell you the timeline as Arnand Favre told it to me. It will become clearer...”

***

Sarah Mills disappeared on June 12. On June 13, according to her husband’s statement, he spent the day looking for her without success. On the afternoon of Jun 14, he reported her missing. According to Superintendent Favre, Mr. Mills was visibly distraught—unshaven, rumpled, shadows under his eyes, barely coherent.”

“Murderers often make good actors,” Claire Cooper said. In addition to being one of Britain’s leading authorities on the Lindisfarne Gospels, was also a True Crime aficionado.

Arthur nodded. “My colleague was not unduly moved by the show of grief. He immediately obtained a statement from Mr. Mills as to his activities on the previous two days and later shared this statement with me.

“Mr. Mills’ account was as follows: On the afternoon of June 11, he and Sarah had arrived at a campground on the outskirts of Chamonix. They’d spent the evening settling in, showering, settling the camping fee. They’d gone into town, shared a meal and a bottle of wine at a restaurant, then returned to the campground at around 10.30 at night. These times were later confirmed by a waiter and their neighboring campers, a Dutch couple. Incidentally, the couple heard the Mills have a noisy argument that night. In fact, the next morning they asked to move to a new site.

“The following day, the Mills slept late. Sarah said she’d do some laundry and Gerard went into the town to do some grocery shopping. Before visiting the grocery store, he obtained a shovel at the local hardware store.

“Ooooh,” Rashid said, “Not good.”

“That clinches it,” Claire agreed.

When Gerard returned to the campground at three o’clock, he says that Sarah was lying on the bed reading. She told Gerard that she’d broken a ceramic bowl and that they needed a new one for their breakfast cereal. Gerard said he was tired and didn’t feel like going back to town, but she was insistent. So, for the sake of keeping the peace, he went back.

When he returned to the campground, Sarah was gone. When she didn’t appear for several hours, he thought that she was angry with him after their argument about the bowl (he didn’t mention the big fight they’d had the previous night). Full of remorse, he spent a sleepless night and early in the morning he went about looking for her. Thinking she’d spent the night in a hotel, he checked all the establishments in town, showing receptionists a photograph of her. He asked the campers and one of them said he’d seen her the previous afternoon, at about four o’clock, walking along a trail near the campground. She was wearing a knapsack. His impression was that she was going for a short hike. Another woman based in the campground said she’d seen Sarah coming out of the bushes on the edge of the campground at around three o’clock. She’d noticed her because she looked a bit furtive, and she’d thought it was odd.

Gerard worried that she’d had an accident while hiking and spent the rest of the day roaming about the trails, stopping other hikers to ask if they’d seen her. Invariably the answer was ‘No.’

The next day, after another sleepless night, Gerard went to the police.”

“By which time more than 24 hours had passed since the last time she was seen.”

“Yes, assuming the witness who saw her on the trail was reliable, it was 41 hours after that.”

“Plenty of time to tidy up,” Claire said wryly.

“When asked if anything was missing from the campervan, he said that the clothes she was wearing, her purse, the shovel and a map of the area. She’d also taken her usual hiking knapsack, which contained a bottle of water, a red rainjacket, a headlamp and a couple of chocolate bars.”

“He actually mentioned the shovel?” Rashid cried in disbelief.

“Well,” Claire said, “The local shopkeeper had mentioned him buying it, of course.”

“Superintendent Favre immediately organized search parties. There was some concern that she might have gone to climb Mont Blanc, so an emergency helicopter scoured the slopes. Members of the community lent a hand. And eventually, a little way off the trail where the woman had last seen Sarah Mills, they recovered her purse, whose contents were scattered on the ground, and the clothes which she had been wearing. There was some blood on her T-shirt, which was torn. Then the shovel was found in the brush near the campground. It had dirt on the blade—it had clearly been used—but there was no evidence of disturbed earth in the form of a grave anywhere nearby, only a small cut in the ground.

“What about in the area where they found her clothes?” Claire asked.

Arthur shook his head.

Nothing. By this time, of course, it had been reported in the newspapers and public suspicion fell on Gerard Mills. The police took him into custody, largely for his own safety. It was at that point that Superintendent Favre called me, since he suspected even then that there would need to be some international cooperation to solve the case. He told me what had happened, much as I have just told you, and he added some interesting pieces of information in addition—things that helped put a new light on the situation.

He told me that staying at the campground at the same time as the Mills was a man who attracted some attention—quite tall, with dark hair, thick bushy eyebrows, very muscular. He was alone, very unfriendly, and he spent most of the day in his tent drinking beer. He had a silver Renault, fairly expensive looking. On the occasions when he did emerge, he drew some attention to himself by staring at other campers…particularly Sarah Mills. And he happened to check out of the campground at three o’clock on July 12, the same day that she went missing. He’d registered in the camp’s log book with the name of Mirko Joviḉ.

“Serbian?” Ruth asked, frowning. “

“Yes. The Gendarmerie drew up a likeness according to the campers’ description and it was posted all across Chamonix and, indeed, Savoie. Seeing the image, an old lady living in the center of Chamonix, an insomniac who spent hours looking out of her window, saw a car stop and the passenger get out to use an ATM at around midnight early on June 13. The car was a silver Renault answering to the description of the one belonging to Mirko. From what the old woman could see, the driver looked like the man in the poster. The passenger was much smaller, though. He was wearing a baseball cap and had a dark beard. According to the old lady, he saw her staring at him and stared straight back at her, as if in challenge. She says it annoyed her at the time. She got the feeling he was trying to frighten her and she’d survived World War Two. But afterwards, hearing what had happened to Sarah Mills, the memory made her blood run cold. As it turned out, at 12.15am on June 13 Sarah Mills’ credit card had been used at that very spot. The old lady had been looking straight into the eyes of a murderer!”

“So what did the superintendent want you to do?” Ruth asked.

He wanted me to find out whether Gerard Mills had a criminal history and he also wanted to know more about Sarah Mills, particularly her former boyfriends or whether she’d ever reported being stalked. So we searched the Mills house and interviewed their friends and family to find out about any marital strife. Thanks to this search, we got a fuller sense of Gerard Mills. He’d been arrested three times as an adolescent, twice of engaging in a fray outside a club—typical teen stuff—and once on a charge of domestic violence.

“Aha!” Claire said and took a gulp of wine.

But the charge was almost immediately dropped. We interviewed the lady in question, who admitted she’d called the police because Gerard, having had a few too many Bacardis, would not stop playing his new Ace of Bass CD at top volume. When she’d complained to him, he’d told her she could go ahead and call the cops if she didn’t like it. So she did. In fact, she narrowly avoided getting ticketed for wasting police time.

It seems that once Gerard met Sarah, he cleaned up his act. He stopped drinking Bacardis, stopped fighting, started up a garage for luxury cars together with a friend of his named Billy Ragg—a very successful enterprise. So successful, in fact, that he was able to indulge a new passion for collecting art. At the Mills’s home we saw an original Clara Porter...

“Gosh!” Rashid exclaimed. “One of hers went for a couple of mill at the last Christie’s auction!”

“Somehow I wouldn’t have picked them for art lovers,” Claire said

Everyone we talked to said the same thing—he was a devoted husband. He and Sarah were planning to have a family. They’d been saving for a house and had been house hunting in the months before going on holiday. Gerard’s mother said the trip had been Sarah’s idea—she’d wanted one last adventure together—just the two of them before they started their family. Gerard had been against it at first but, as usual, he quickly fell in with her wishes.”

“A bit of mother-in-law friction there, it sounds like,” said Ruth.

“Yes,” Arthur said, “There was no love lost between Mrs Mills senior and her daughter in law. She called her all sorts of names, the upshot being that she had Gerard wound around her little finger.

“Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Sarah’s version of events was completely at variance with what Sarah Mills’ colleague Alice told us. The two worked together at a beauty salon and had not been particularly close, which is why Alice was rather surprised when Sarah confided in her, about a week before she and Gerard left for their European holiday.

“She told Alice that she didn’t want to go but that Gerard insisted. Alice scoffed and said, ‘Why not let him go on his own then?’. Sarah shook her head and whispered that she was scared of him. She then rolled up the sleeve of her blouse and showed Alice a lurid bruise. She then carefully rolled the sleeve down again. Alice was shocked. She said that Gerard had always seemed to her the Prince of Mildness and wouldn’t have believed him capable of that sort of brutality.

“Oh, you can never tell though,” said Claire, “The charming, sympathetic types are often the most vicious.”

Alice urged Sarah to go to a women’s shelter to call the cops but Sarah shook her head. She said, rather cryptically, ‘It’s too late. I’m in too deep. But if I don’t come back from the holiday…remember what I told you.’

Alice replied that she’d have a hard time forgetting and that she’d much rather sort it out now and put the bastard behind bards. At that point, Sarah became very agitated and even swore at Alice and threatened her with a pair of scissors so that she’d put down her cellphone. At that point, Alice decided that if Sarah Mills wanted to be a punching bag, who was Alice to stand in her way? Frankly, she suspected that Sarah was being a bit overly dramatic. Of course, now that she’d been murdered, Alice felt remorseful.”

“So what it seems to come down to,” Rashid mused, “Is that one party was lying—Gerard or Sarah.”

“What about the search of the house?” Ruth asked. “Find anything?”

Arthur sipped his sherry and nodded.

“We found something quite damning on Sarah Mills’ dresser drawers. This was a letter written by Sarah. I have a copy with me, as I knew our gracious hostess wanted me to tell the story.”

Ceremoniously, he reached into his inner breast pocket and produced a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and started to read:

To Whom it May Concern,

If you are reading this, it means that I did not return from holiday. I have probably been murdered by my husband Gerard P. Mills. Do not be fooled by his meek face he is a monster. Goodbye cruel world.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Mills

“Meanwhile, back in Chamonix, the Gendarmerie had alerted all of Europe to be on the lookout for two men in a silver Renault. A week later, they found a licence plate dumped by the side of the road near Marseille. The car, with different plates, was found parked at the port.”

“So they left by ferry?” Rashid asked.

“So it would seem,” said Arthur, “Though nothing was proved. Back in Chamonix, Superintendent Favre was becoming increasingly perplexed. ‘Arthur,’ he said to me one day, ‘It is too strange. There is no body. There is no motive. This husband, he tells me all of a sudden he wants to confess. We are happy. We ask him too many questions:  How did you kill your wife? Where is her body Why did you do it? To all this, he say nothing. ‘It doesn’t matter, this,’ he insists, ‘I tell you, I am guilty.’ We reply that of course it matters very much. The parents of Sarah, for example, think of her mamán. The last rites, how cruel to deprive her parents of this last comfort. And so on .That day, he tries to—how you say?—suicide himself. The guard saves him. The next day, he comes to us and says, ‘Now I am ready. I tell you everything.’ Eh bien! ‘Wonderful!’ I say, ‘I am all the ears.'” Arthur paused and produced another paper from his pocket.

“This is a transcript of Gerard Mills’ statement, which Superintendent Favre faxed to me that day:

On the night of June 11, Sarah and I had a big argument. I was very angry with her and shouted at her. In fact I was so angry that I decided to kill her. I left in the morning and thought about how to do it. I bought a shovel so I could dig her grave. My previous statement, that she’d asked me to buy it, was a lie. Then I went to the grocery store and returned to the campground at about two o’clock in the afternoon. I pretended I was sorry for yelling at her the previous evening. She did not accept my apology. I pretended to leave for the shop but in fact I parked the car a short way from the campground to watch her and wait for my chance. Just as I suspected, she decided to go for a hike. I followed her and killed her.”

“At about this point, Superintendent Arnand Favre interrupted. ‘How did you kill her?’

‘I strangled her,’ the widower replied.

‘How long did it take?’

‘I wasn’t timing it.’

‘Approximately, let’s say.’

‘Ten minutes.’

‘Did she struggle?’

‘No. I surprised her. She didn’t have a chance.’

‘Where did it happen? Can you show me on the map?’

[Mr. Mills points to a point on a walking trail leading to Mer de Glace]

‘OK, you strangled your wife. And then?’

‘What do you mean?’

Sacre bleu! The body, monsieur. What did you do with her body?’

‘I took it back to the car.’

‘It was parked near the campground, non?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘Bien, and when you brought her to your car, what did you do?’

‘I covered her with a blanket and drove her to Lake Gaillands. Then I waited until midnight and dropped her in the lake.’

‘And what time did you do this?’

‘It was about eight o’clock at night.’

Superintendent Favre later told me that at this point, he carefully put his pen down on his desk, folded his arms and stared at Gerard Mills for several seconds.

‘Monsieur,’ he said quietly, ‘Might I ask why you are wasting my time?’

‘What do you mean?’ said Mr. Mills.

‘I mean, your wife has disappeared and you are telling me this rooster-and-cow story that a child of seven would not believe.’

‘I’m telling you the truth!’ Gerard yelled. ‘I murdered Sarah!’

‘Pardon, but that is not the truth. Do you suppose every Frenchman is such an idiot that he will believe the moon is constructed of cheese? You think I will nod and believe you are a magician so that you can appear in two places at one time? Between two o’clock and eight o’clock you claim you were hiking in the forest and strangling your wife and disposing of her body. I have no witnesses to support this extraordinary claim, but I have at least three witnesses who say you were elsewhere. You were in the supermarket purchasing a dinner plate—I have video evidence, there is no use shaking the head—and after that you consumed wine at a tabaccheria.’ He held up a finger to anticipate Gerard’s interruption.

‘But, mon ami, that is not the most insulting part of this cockadoodle story. You expect me to believe you followed your wife here,’ he jabbed at the map where Gerard had claimed to have killed Sarah, ‘Which is an hour of hiking and that she did not notice your presence—you are a true Mohican, eh? And then you strangle her for ten minutes as she is calm as a feather and does not kick, does not bite, does not fight for her life. And then, when she is kaput, you, as you put it ‘take her to your car’, presumably carrying a tall woman in your arms down a popular hiking trail that is rather steep. You do not mention any difficulty in this extraordinary feat. And I do not ask because it is clear to me that it is something you did not do.’

‘I carried her. I’m used to lifting weights,’ Gerard insisted.

‘I do not doubt it. That is possible of course. Yes, perhaps you carry your substantial wife down the hill for an hour in your arms like the Bridegroom of Death. But me, I do not consider you so eccentric or (excuse me) bold that you would carry her naked, in broad daylight, down a trail where many people travel.’

‘I didn’t use the trail,’ Gerard retorted, but feebly.

“In your statement, you did not explain why you removed her clothes. You did not explain removing her credit card. You did not explain why you bought the shovel if you did not use it. You explain nothing.’

Gerard stared furiously at the table in the interrogation room. Favre patted his head kindly.

‘This is some cauchemar for you, non? Your beloved wife disappears. You are accused of the crime. What would I do in your place? I would be angry, enraged. It would be my passion to find the true murderer and to put him in the jail. To exact revenge, to teach him a lesson. This you do not do. I ask myself why. I think and think and finally, it comes to me: you wish to protect the criminal, is it not?

Gerard directed his gaze in front of him, expressionless. Favre continued.

‘Monsieur, consider for a moment. This criminal did not wish to protect you, after all. Au contraire, she carefully laid a trap for you. This is worse than mere disregard, it is a diabolical malevolence. There is no longer any obligation for you to protect this monster, your wife.’

Gerard let his head fall into his hands and wept.

Favre waited patiently until Gerard was quiet except for whimpering noises.

‘Now, time to pour the beans, mon ami. I think you know everything. Why don’t you tell me?’

Gerard nodded and sighed.

‘It was that police sketch that made me realize,’ he said.

‘The sketch of Mirko Joviḉ, the Serb?’

Gerard snorted scornfully.

‘Serb my foot! It was Billy Ragg from Enfield.’

Favre nodded.

‘A man you know well, I believe you were friends?’

‘Couldn’t stand the git,’ Gerard spat.

‘And yet, he was a frequent visitor at your home, was he not?’

‘How did you know that?’ Gerard asked.

‘My colleagues in Britain, they asked about your friends and your business. Do you care to explain why it was that you so often entertained a man you disliked at your home?’

Gerard pursed his lips. The superintendent continued.

‘Was it perhaps a business relationship? I do not speak of the garage you were partners in, but of the smuggling operation you ran. Guns, drugs, sometimes people.’

Gerard shot him a look of deep dislike.

‘Perhaps, for example, this Billy Ragg was arranging a large shipment. Something that would pay the conspirators well, so well that you would be able to afford a lovely new house, education for your future children, multi-million-pound artworks…?’ Favre looked at Gerard.

Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1985 by Lucian Freud Oil on canvas. Private collection, on loan from the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Image ©The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

‘Ah, we are like the clam now? Well, no matter. Let us continue with this imagining. What if Billy Ragg was using this promise to lure his partner into a trap? What if Billy Ragg was jealous of his partner’s wife and wanted to destroy him once and for all?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Gerard.

‘Come, come There is no shame in being taken for a fool. After all, the racket had been lucrative in the past. This is how you bought your nice car, your house, your expensive artwork…This was just the same, but a much bigger prize. And, as had happened in the past, Ragg required some kind of deposit from you, to pay for expenses. A much bigger deposit.’

Gerard was turning purple. He yawned but according to Favre it looked more like a silent, angry scream.

‘So this Billy Ragg is clever. He extracts money from his mark and at the same time seduces the wife. He charms her with visions of fabulous riches, a new life somewhere sunny. He tells her he has connections in high places, people who will help create new identities for them both. And this is true. She is charmed by this trickster and by the prospect of a great exciting future. There is only one thing standing in her way—this husband. But they have a plan to deal with him. Such a clever but simple plan. They laugh about it together. They’ll frame him for her murder and then vanish.’

Gerard uttered an animal cry, leapt up and went to attack Favre, who sidestepped him easily. Two other gendarmes burst in to restrain the suspect.

‘Monsieur,’ said Favre ,’I tell you you are right to be angry. This is nature. What is not nature is to do suicide, to lie down for these heartless beasts. Strike back! That is the idea. And with my help, monsieur, you can strike back most well.’

‘How?’ Gerard gritted his teeth.

‘Billy Ragg is clever, yes, but he is not so anonymous as he hopes. Scotland Yard were close to arresting him for human trafficking some men who died in the back of a truck last year. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses was killed in a hit-and-run accident before the case went to trial. One of the reasons, indeed, that Mr. Ragg wanted to make a new life for himself  What I propose, Mister Mills, is a species of exchange. The police are willing to overlook any…indiscretions on your part, for example receiving stolen art works and conspiring in smuggling. In return, you will tell a jury what you know of the criminal acts of Mr. Ragg, who is looking at perhaps twenty years in a prison.’

Gerard Mills looked at his hands, clenched his fists, then looked superintendent Favre in the eyes.

‘It will be a pleasure,’ he said.

Fiction, Poetry

Multifarious Fausts

What with staying ‘safe at home’, freezing temperatures and 3pm sunsets, this autumn has been a great time for finally getting around to reading the Classics in translation. I liked War and Peace (without expecting to), and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (trans. MacNeice) was a solid piece of work, 8/10. Next up on the remedial-doorstop list was Goethe’s Faust. Frankly, any story involving a Deal with the Devil holds interest for me so I had high hopes. “A crusty old scholar summons Mephistopheles and so gains magical powers, the appearance of youth and unlimited access to earthly delights. But there’s a catch!” Honestly, what is there not to like?

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Faust. See more of his dark designs here

The ‘Real’ Faust

Johann Georg Faust may or may not have been an historical person who lived around about 1480-1540. Some records in the early sixteenth century mention a man of that name posing variously as an itinerant magician, doctor of philosophy, physician, alchemist, magician, astrologer, “nigromancer” and sodomite. He was known to travel with a horse and a dog that occasionally changed into a human servant. This Faust went about conning people, practicing black magic on them and generally blaspheming until he died in an explosion while conducting an alchemical experiment in an inn in Staufen im Breisgau (this is one version). Rumor has it that people saw how badly his body was mutilated by the blast and concluded that the devil had come in person to settle accounts.

If you want to read book based on the ‘historical’ character, you could try The Master’s Apprentice: A Retelling of the Faust Legend (trans. Lisa Reinhardt). Despite the subtitle, it’s more death-metal nightmare than legend and was a way too horrifying for me to go on with.

The very first printed version of Faust’s life was a small chapbook called Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in 1587. This was essentially a morality tale, as you can see from the title translated into English: The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus.

Frontispiece of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in 1587 by Johann Spies

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Using the English translation of the German chapbook as his main source, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) wrote The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus , whose first performance happened about a decade after his death in 1604. In this play, the ambitious Dr. Faustus uses his learning to use a book of spells, so summoning Mephistopheles to his study. A transaction is quickly effected whereby Mephistopheles becomes his servant for 24 years. But then:

I, JOHN FAUSTUS, OF WERTENBERG, DOCTOR, BY THESE PRESENTS, DO GIVE BOTH BODY AND SOUL TO LUCIFER PRINCE OF THE EAST, AND HIS MINISTER MEPHISTOPHILIS; AND FURTHERMORE GRANT UNTO THEM, THAT, TWENTY-FOUR YEARS BEING EXPIRED, THE ARTICLES ABOVE-WRITTEN INVIOLATE, FULL POWER TO FETCH OR CARRY THE SAID JOHN FAUSTUS, BODY AND SOUL, FLESH, BLOOD, OR GOODS, INTO THEIR HABITATION WHERESOEVER. BY ME, JOHN FAUSTUS.

That settled, he starts dreaming about becoming Emperor of the World. Mephistopheles parades before him a juicy selection of demon prostitutes, then he gets acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, who I imagine must have been dressed up in some evocative costumes for visual appeal. Then, as a favour to his students, Faust has Mephistopheles conjure up the most beautiful woman who has ever existed, Helen of Troy. He rides in a dragon-drawn chariot up to Mt. Olympus and studies the celestial mechanism. Then he goes to Rome to meet the Pope, causing havoc and hilarity (no doubt pleasing his London punters no end). At the end of the play, Dr. Faustus gets his just desserts and devils come to haul him away in a violent encounter that ends with his limbs scattered all over his library.

MEPH: But, tell me, Faustus, shall I have thy soul?
And I will be thy slave, and wait on thee,
And give thee more than thou hast wit to ask.
 
FAUSTUS: Ay, Mephistopheles, I’ll give it thee.

Goethe’s Faust

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust is generally considered to be the greatest work of German literature, maybe even the first great work. That’s mainly because before 1750, German-speaking people looked to France for intellectual and cultural leadership. This changed after philosopher Christian Wolff (1679-1754) chose to teach and write in German, lending it legitimacy as a philosophical and literary language.

Weimar courtyard of the Muses. Schiller reading to the court in Tiefurt. (1860) by Theobald von Oer. The woman in white is Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Goethe stands on the right, with his hand on his heart.

From 1772 to 1805, Goethe associated with a group of writers based in Weimar who developed a literary movement expounding certain aesthetic and philosophical principles. This would later be seen as a kind of synthesis of Enlightenment and Romanticism. This movement is now known as Weimar Classicism and, though Goethe is the greatest proponent, Friedrich Schiller, Christoph Martin Wieland and Johann Gottfriend Herder.

As a child, Goethe had been fascinated by puppet shows of the Faustus legend. He started work on his own version while still a young man and would continue improving on it until his death.

The puppet show might have looked something like this short film directed by Emil Radanok

Part One was published in 1808. Plot-wise, Goethe’s biggest innovation was the character of Gretchen, a young woman who, by all accounts (*weary sigh*), embodies both the Pure Virgin Mary and the Seductive Eve. Allowing herself to be seduced by Faust, Gretchen gets pregnant, then kills the child out of despair. It looks like she’ll be damned for the sin of infanticide but at the very last minute a few lines from the end, voices call from above, “Is saved!”

Joseph Fay (1812-1875), Illustrationfor Faust (1846), colour lithograph, in ‘Faust – the Tragedy Part 1’, Paris 1846, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Part Two, a phantasmagorical meditation about god knows what came out in 1832, after Goethe’s death. Here, Faust trots about in a dragon-chariot and has conversations with supernatural beings. Maybe the original poetry adds some kind of humor or pizzaz or sense but the translations I’ve read leave me baffled. I haven’t got to the end yet but have a vague idea that Faust goes through some kind of transformation and finally gets to Heaven. Goethe said that only a few people would ‘get it’, and I’m happy to leave it to them. Here are his own words:

“…in the second part, there is scarcely anything of the subjective; here is seen a higher, broader, clearer, more passionless world, and he who has not looked about him and had some experience, will not know what to make of it.” – Conversations with Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann February 17, 1831 (translated by John Oxenford)

Faust riding around on Chiron the centaur. It’s fine.

Musical Fausts

Mein armer Kopf / Ist mir verrückt, / Mein armer Sinn/ Ist mir zerstückt. (My poor head/ I’m crazy/ My poor senses/have come unstuck.)

My favourite Fausts are musical. Nineteenth-century composers went crazy for the tale and luckily they weren’t put off by Goethe’s own declaration that no one but Mozart would be up to the task of putting it to music. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set 80 of Goethe’s poems to music, and the very first of these was “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, “Gretchen at the Spinningwheel”, (1814). The frenetic piano resembles a spinning wheel and when Gretchen gets to be crazy with longing towards the end, the singer genuinely sounds distracted.

Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust Second Act “Midnight” with the voices of Want, Guilt, Care, Need and Faust

Later in the century, more and more composers tried their hand at musical adaptations. Robert Schumann wrote “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” (1851), which some critics consider his magnum opus. Robert Wagner originally meant to write a symphony but dialled it back to an atmospheric overture, Faust” (1855). The brilliant Hungarian Franz Liszt wrote “A Faust symphony in Three Character Pictures” (1857), one picture each for Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. The second part of Mahler’s Symphony Number Eight is a musical setting of the final scenes of Faust Part Two, where Faust’s soul finally ascends to heaven.

The symphony’s thrilling and joyful finale conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Then we have the operas. Hector Berlioz La Damnation de Faust was first performed in 1846. The public was pretty indifferent to the thing on opening night, which hurt his feelings, but it’s still recorded as a concert piece and there are some beautiful arias including “D’amour l’ardente flamme” in which Gretchen (Marguerite) has been abandoned and longs for Faust’s return.

Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), better known as a librettist for Verdi, wrote an opera called Mefistofele that had its premier at La Scala on 5 March 1868. Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) began an opera called Doktor Faust but died before its completion it was finished by his pupil Philipp Jarnach. But my favorite Faust opera is definitely that of Charles Gounod‘s Faust, based on a theater play written by Michel Carré, which was in turn based on Part One of Goethe’s work. I particularly like the Mephistopheles character, who has a great aria “Le Veau d’Or”, here sung by Nicolai Ghiaurov:

The calf of gold is still standing!
One adulates his power,
One adulates his power,
From one end of the world to the other end!
To celebrate the infamous idol,
Kings and the people mixed together,
To the somber sound of golden coins,
They danse a wild round
Around his pedestal
Around his pedestal
And Satan leads the dance
!

Unsurprisingly, it’s also been a popular topic for rock and metal bands with a lyric bent. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably the most famous example but there are a lot of others. The metal band Agalloch produced a whole album called “Faustian Echoes” based on quotes from Goethe’s poem. Here is a song accompanied by clips from the 1926 silent movie directed by F.W. Murnau:

Films

There have been many, many cinematic representations of the Faust legend. The following posters should give you an idea of the range…

F.W. Murnau’s silent film Faust (1926)
La Beauté Du Diable (1950)
Alexander Sokurow (2011)
Rock opera of 1976 directed by Brian DePalma
Faust (1994). Probably the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.

Six Stories

There are so many stories based on the Faust legend that it would be pretty tedious to list them all, but there are six:

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1894) by Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who becomes convinced that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth living for. If only he could find a way not to age…

2. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) by Stephen Vincent Benét

A New Hampshire farmer who has sold his soul to the devil aka “Mr. Scratch” has Daniel Webster, the famous statesman, orator and lawyer, to defend him in court.

3. The Master and Margarita (written in the 1930s, first published in 1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov

The devil visits the Soviet Union, disrupting the life of the new elite. Satan offers Margarita, (whose author lover The Master is in a lunatic asylum) the chance to become a witch. Meanwhile, in another time and place Pontius Pilate presides at the trial of Jesus…

4. Doktor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann

A composer strikes a Faustian bargain for creative greatness: e intentionally contracts syphilis in order to enhance his creative powers (don’t blame me, I didn’t write it!).

5. Galactic Pot-Healer (1969) by Philip K. Dick

In this case an ordinary guy named Joe Fernwright is summoned to Sirius Five by a Glimmung, a highly evolved alien with godlike powers who wants him for his excellent pot-healing skills. At the end of the book, Fernwright is offered the chance to join the Glimmung’s hive mind.

6. Faust (ファウスト, Fausuto

Of course there is a manga based on Faust. Osamu Tezuka published his version in 1950. Unusually, he blends Part One and Two together.

The Last Faust?

So there you have it. There are few legends as fecund as Faust and the barrel’s not empty yet. Last year saw the release of an art film titled The Last Faust, set in the year 2059. I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen the end of new mutations.

Fiction

10 Online Literary Festivals for the End of 2020

The necessity of ‘staying safe at home’ has changed things. Even I, one of the least social people outside of cave-dwelling hermits, have occasionally felt the sting of solitude. A couple of months ago I even made an uncharacteristic effort at sociability and set up a Zoom appointment with a friend from my school days, someone I hadn’t seen for about 25 years. Jenny is an Irish citizen who was in Melbourne when Covid-19 struck and she’s been forced to stay in situ for the year, keeping herself busy with online work. We ended up chatting for an hour and having a good laugh and catch up. It was interesting and inspiring to hear about some of her adventures—abseiling up windmills on the North Sea, living in tree houses in Oregon and setting up an organization promoting women in trades in Ireland.

One of the interests we have in common is reading and she warmly recommended, since I’m in Northern Ireland, the Dublin Book Festival. Dublin is only a quick train ride from Belfast but the predicted second wave came along and in-person events are once more out of the question. My interest was piqued, however, and I realized that the festival is going full-steam ahead in a virtual format. Last night I decided to check out a—completely free—talk between Séan Rocks and three authors: Roddy Doyle (The Commitments, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Love), Christine Dwyer Hickey (Tatty, The Narrow Land) and Kevin Barry (Nightboat to Tangier, City of Bohane). The three authors were really good talkers and the conversation was thought-provoking and funny.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to look and see if there were any other things going on this month. As it happens, there are! So if you’re interested in finding about new books and authors from around the world, go ahead and check out one of these events!

1. Dublin Book Festival

November 26-December 6

A meeting of Irish writers in all genres. Featured authors include Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Mike Chinoy, Louise O’Neill and Dr. William C. Campbell.

2. Georgetown Literary Festival: Through the Looking Glass

November 26-29

This one has nearly finished but it’s a good chance to check out what’s going on on the Malaysian literary scene and many of the talks are conducted in English. The theme is looking at the role of art and literature in a time of crisis. Highlights include a talk on the centenary of Paul Celan’s birth and a conversation with Filipino writer F. Sionil José. Have a squiz at the program here.

3. Palestine Writes

December 2-6 2020

An event that brings together writers, artists, publishers and others to discuss the intersection between culture, struggle and politics. More than 70 international scholars, writers, artists and activists will take part, including, Kenyan poet and playwright Shailja Patel; prize-winning historian Robin D.G. Kelley; Oglala Lakota educator and poet Mark Tilsen; and indigenous scholar and Red Nation activist Nick Estes.

4. Indo-American Arts Council Literary Festival “Stories of Humanity”

December 4-3

A celebration of literature from and influenced by the sub-continent. Featured authors include Dr. Madhu Bazaz Wangu (The Immigrant Wife), Megha Majumdar (A Burning) and essayist Sejal Shah (This is One Way to Dance).

5. Twenty in 2020

Saturday, December 5  14.00-19.00 GMT

This event, from independent publisher Jacaranda, showcases 20 Black British authors. Tickets are available here. Among the twenty are crime-writer Stella Oni (Deadly Sacrifice), novelist Berni Sorga-Milwood (Under Solomon Skies) and Somali poet Hibaq Osman.

6. Crater Literary Festival: “The Literary Agenda”

December 14-16

Crater is a publisher that supports new writing with a particular focus on Southeast Nigeria. The theme of this year’s edition of the festival is “The Literary Agenda”. Topics of discussion include Publishing in a Digital Age, Igbo Literature and Book Clubs. The program includes chat sessions with authors Deji Yesufu, Abigail Anaba and Tayo Agunbiade, a virtual art exhibition by Ifedilichukwu Chibuike and a live stream of a short drama about the 1949 Iva Valley Massacre.

Abigail Anaba

7. Vita Nova in Turin

December 4- 8

For Italian-speakers, the Salone Internazionale del Libro (International Book Festival) goes online this year. In response to the challenges that this year has brought, this event has a theme that encourages us to look at life anew, to realize that “reality is not a list of opponents, but of elements that we must learn to integrate with each other, to reconcile, to coordinate.” All events will be livestreamed free on Facebook here. I’m particularly interested in a talk by Romeo Castellucci on the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante. You can read more about it here.

8. Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival

November 30-December 22

Cookbooks, children’s stories, biographies and more–this festival has everything! Featured novelists include Eshkol Nevo (The Last Interview), David Hopen (This Orchard) and Myla Goldberg (feast your eyes) See the schedule here.

9. AIM Children’s Literary Festival

Live from London December5 11am-1pm GMT

Brought to you by children’s book publisher Author In Me, this event celebrates work for and by young people. One of the speakers is thirteen-year-old Anoushka Sabnis (Once Upon a Verse–because poems tell stories), who published her first book at the age of ten. The Facebook link is here.

10. Lockdown Lit Fest

This event is a bit different, you might even say ‘unprecedented’, because it’s an ongoing online hub “born in the time of Covid-19” to provide writers and readers with literary entertainment and inspiration in the form of author interviews. It’s all free, though donations are welcome. One of their most recent interviews was with Xialu Guo (A Lover’s Discourse and Village of Stone) and you can access all their previous sessions on the website by clicking the link ‘All Authors.’

Ancient, History, Translated fiction

Curses on Vases: Illustrated Agamemnon

The House of Atreus is cursed. I have been making my way through Louis MacNeice’s 1939 translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which is sometimes tough going, but that much is clear. As a way to get a better grip on the web of treachery and stink of ancestral blood, I decided to find images of the myth in Greek vases. Sure enough, there were no shortage of them.

According to some stories, the rot goes all the way back to Tantalus, who tried to serve up his son Pelops to the Olympian gods for dinner. The gods caught the trick in time and banished Tantalus to the Underworld to be eternally ‘tantalized’. They reconstructed Pelops (replacing his shoulder with an ivory prosthesis because Demeter had absent-mindedly swallowed his original one).

Poseidon riding a seahorse flirting with Pelops. A terracotta hydria from the 4th century BCE, Attic. At the Met Museum.

Some time later, Pelops (who was now as good as new) fell in love with Hippodamia. Her father was Oenomaus, a King who had heard a prophecy that he’d be killed by his son in law. He had therefore decided to challenge each of her other suitors to a chariot race and then kill him when he inevitably lost. Pelops was afraid of losing like the 18 suitors before him, so he enlisted the help of his former lover Poseidon, who gave him four winged horses. Just to make completely sure of the outcome, though, Pelops also struck up a dirty deal with Oenomaus’ charioteer Myrtilus: If he took out the bronze linchpins connecting the axle to the chariot wheels, replacing them with  wax linchpins, the charioteer would have the right to sleep with Hippodamia on the first night of her wedding to Pelops. Myrtilus kept up his end of the bargain and the King was killed, dragged by his own horses. Pelops was not grateful to Myrtilus but threw him off a cliff. As the charioteer was falling to his death, he cursed his killer (incidentally, the site of Myrtilus’ burial place in Olympia was known as a taraxippus, literally a ‘horse disturber’, a place haunted by ghosts or dangers).

Bath-water jug by the White Sakkos Painter from Apulia (320-310 BCE) Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons: Thyestes and Atreus. The brothers fought for ascendancy and Atreus won. Atreus married Aerope but she became lovers with Thyestes. When Atreus learned of this adultery, he prepared a delicious feast for Thyestes, without telling him that the meat was Thyestes’ own children. Horrified by his consumption of human flesh, Thyestes cursed Atreus:

When he knew what all unhallowed thing
He thus had wrought, with horror’s bitter cry
Back-starting, spewing forth the fragments foul,
On Pelops’ house a deadly curse he spake:
As darkly as I spurn this damned food,
So perish all the race of Pleisthenes!
Note: Pleisthenes is one of the sons in the stew.

As time winds on, the malediction ripens. Paris abducts Menelaus’ wife Helen and takes ‘the fair mischief’ to Troy. Paris was staying as a guest in Menelaus’ house when he kidnapped Helen, which means his act was not only adulterous but also violated rules related to hospitality sacred to Zeus. None of this is good news for Troy:

What curse on palace and on people sped
With her, the Fury sent on Priam’s pride,
By angered Zeus! What tears of many a widowed bride!
Oil Jar with Paris and Helen, 420 – 400 B.C., Attributed to the Painter of the Frankfort Acorn, vase-painter; and Phintias, potter, Greek, Athens. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Agamemnon and Menelaus prepare an army to go to Troy. While they are wondering if it’s still the right thing to do, they see a pair of eagles:

And one was black, one bore a white tail barred.
High o’er the palace were they seen to soar,
Then lit in sight of all, and rent and tare,
Far from the fields that she should range no more,
Big with her unborn brood, a mother-hare.
Eagle catching a rabbit on an Etruscan vase, from Caere (ca. 550-530 BCE)
From Twitter feed of Peter Gainsford

A soothsayer gleans from this that Troy will fall but that it will anger Artemis, who hates to see young animals killed. In return she will demand “a curst unhallowed sacrifice/’Twixt wedded souls”.

Knowing that the trip will be basically successful, Agamemnon gathers forces to go help Menelaus get Helen back, but Artemis stalls the ships at Aulis. A priest advises Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia so the ships will be able to go on to Troy. He does so, and so earns the ever-lasting hatred of his wife Clytemnestra:

And ill, to smite my child, my household’s love and pride!
To stain with virgin Hood a father’s hands, and slay
My daughter, by the altar’s side!
Apulian red-figure volute-krater by the Iliupersis Painter 370BC-350BC in the British Museum

Meanwhile, in Troy, another curse is in progress. The god Apollo falls in love with Cassandra, a beautiful Trojan princess. Afraid of him, she promises she will marry him and he gives her the gift of prophecy. She then breaks her promise and he changes the gift to a curse—no one will ever believe her prophecies. Instead, they’ll scorn her and call her a “witch and cheat”. Cassandra predicts the Fall of Troy but she is powerless to prevent it. On the night it falls, Ajax the Lesser tears her away from the sanctuary of Athena, rapes her then gives her to Agamemnon as a slave.

Ethiop Painter Terracotta Nolan neck-amphora (jar), ca. 450 B.C. Greek, Attic, Classical Terracotta; H. 11 1/8 in. (28.3 cm) diameter of mouth 4 13/16 in. (12.2 cm) diameter of foot 3 1/16 in. (7.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1956 (56.171.41)

When Cassandra arrives in Argos as Agamemnon’s captive, she immediately senses the family curse. She sees ghostly children—Tyndareus’ sons—on the roof and hears the Curse as Furies who physically occupy Agamemnon’s palace and gloat about all the misery therein, stemming from the ‘incestuous’ affair between Thyestes and Aerope:

Within this house a choir abidingly
Chants in harsh unison the chant of ill;
Yea, and they drink, for more enhardened joy,
Man’s blood for wine, and revel in the halls,
Departing never, Furies of the home.
They sit within, they chant the primal curse,
Each spitting hatred on that crime of old,
The brother’s couch, the love incestuous
That brought forth hatred to the ravisher.
Detail of Erinys (a Fury) from a Paestan Red Figure Krater by the Python Painter (ca. 360-320 BCE). In the British Museum.

When Clytemnestra boasts about murdering Agamemnon, the Chorus see her as a tuneless raven in an image that recalls the ‘harsh unison’ of the ‘chant of ill’ sung by the Furies of the house:

                                                Thy very form I see,
Like some grim raven, perched upon the slain,
Exulting o’er the crime, aloud, in tuneless strain!
Apollo and a crow

Clytemnestra herself agrees, suggesting that she is to some extent possessed by a daimon:

Right was that word—thou namest well
The brooding race-fiend, triply fell!
From him it is that murder’s thirst,
Blood-lapping, inwardly is nursed—
Ere time the ancient scar can sain,
New blood comes welling forth again.
Aigisthos and Clytemnestra ambush Agamemnon just out of the bath. Mixing bowl from Athens ca. 470 BCE at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Klytemnestra murders Cassandra on the altar of Apollo. Ironic! Marlay Painter, kylix (425-400 BCE)

Where will it all end? The problem is that the murder is wrong in at least three different, polluting ways: a wife has murdered her husband, a nephew (Aigisthos) has murdered his uncle, and a guest (Aigisthos) has murdered his host.  This all means that new blood will have to be spilled into infinity. Or does it? Aeschylus hashes out the resolution in the next two plays: The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

An old bath