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Literature / The Documents in the Case

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A 1930 murder mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, cowritten by Robert Eustace.

A noted mycologist is found grotesquely dead in his vacation cabin, apparently from eating a dish of incredibly toxic mushrooms he gathered himself. Almost no one seems to believe that it was anything but a tragic mistake. Yet, wouldn't a man who was an obsessive expert in his field know better than to eat enough poison to kill several men? Through a batch of letters compiled by the dead man's son, a strange drama unfolds, revealing a host of strangely intertwined secrets and, perhaps, clues that the embarrassing accidental death was in fact a nearly perfect crime...

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This novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Affectionate Nickname: Harwood Lathom and Margaret Harrison employ this exclusively in their love letters, calling each other "Petra" and "Lolo" after the historical Petrarch and his (possible) adulterous lover Laura de Noves. It's hard to know how much of this is normal Sickeningly Sweethearts behavior and what is a cover in case their letters are ever intercepted.
    • Munting always greets his fiancée Elizabeth as "Bungie", an endearment that is never explained to the reader.
  • Artistic License – Chemistry: The Documents in the Case describes a block of salt as casting a greenish light when put in flame. The emission spectrum of sodium is orange-yellow. This is much more obvious in the present day, since sodium lamps are widely used in street lighting.
  • Awful Wedded Life: The Harrisons' marriage is obviously miserable, although the exact specifics of how and why are left indeterminate thanks to the juggling of multiple perspectives.
  • The Charmer: Lathom.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Munting.
  • Detective Drama: Of a slightly unusual sort, since the detective character (the victim's son) compiles all the letters and is the driving force behind solving the mystery, but hardly appears at all as an actual character.
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  • Divorce Requires Death: Margaret Harrison desperately wants to marry Lathom, but can't bear the stigma of divorcing her husband first. Her obstinacy on this point, plus a Pregnancy Scare, is what drives Lathom to murder George Harrison.
  • Doing It for the Art: In-universe: One of the many traits that distinguish the idealistic Lathom and the pragmatic Munting. Lathom isn't quite a Starving Artist, but he has trouble supporting himself despite his prodigious talent because he only paints as he feels inspired. On the other hand, Munting's letters to his fiancée are filled with descriptions of the drivel he's writing on commission so he can eventually afford to write what he likes (which he does, after his nonsense book becomes a runaway bestseller).
  • Eat the Evidence: A variation: The killer was banking on the victim cooking and eating the evidence, making it impossible to trace the true source of the poison.
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  • Epistolary Novel
  • Fake Pregnancy / Pregnancy Scare: Munting wonders which was in play when Mrs. Harrison implied to Lathom that she was pregnant.
    "I want to know, when she wrote that letter ... whether she was deceiving him or herself."
  • Fighting Your Friend: Munting is reluctant to help investigate Lathom because of their past association, though seems to be out of respect for the man's talent almost as much as scruples about going behind a friend's back.
  • Happily Married: Munting and his fiancée marry midway through the novel, and have a supportive and stable relationship in spite of all the drama.
  • Hysterical Woman: Miss Milsom is portrayed as somewhere between this and The Ophelia. She would like to think of herself as the latter, but others clearly regard her as the former. She regularly sees a psychiatrist, but it's never made clear whether she is legitimately mentally ill or merely self-absorbed and manipulative.
  • Insufferable Genius: Lathom, when described in Munting's POV. Munting can barely stand Lathom personally, but acknowledges his artistic talent with something near awe on multiple occasions.
  • It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: How Munting describes his and Lathom's decision to rent rooms together. They both needed to split expenses, they'd known each other at school, and Munting was "under the spell of Lathom's enthusiasm, stupefied by food and public-school spirit". He realized soon after moving in that it was a bad fit, but it was too late to back out.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Munting tends to come off as unsociable and snobbish — sometimes almost misanthropic — but is revealed in his letters to be conscientious, a loyal friend, and deeply devoted to his fiancée.
    • George Harrison, to a degree. His early appearances focus on his poor treatment of his wife, though that seems to be a two-way-street — but in his letters to his son he is warm and affectionate, and expresses some level of appreciation for almost everyone who isn't his wife or Miss Milsom. The murder investigation also finds that he was generally well-liked by people who knew him professionally.
  • Keet: Lathom.
  • Last-Name Basis: We wouldn't even know Harwood Lathom's first name if it weren't printed in the "editor's notes" appended to his letters.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The murderer's intent. (He slipped a synthetic poison into a harmless dish of stew to make it appear that the victim accidentally gathered and ingested the wrong mushrooms.)
  • May–December Romance: The Harrisons. George is old enough to have a 36-year-old son, while Margaret is in her 20s (the age gap and attendant difference in outlook is probably one of the many reasons the actual romance in their marriage has gone stone cold.
  • Mirror Chemistry: Proof that it was indeed a murder and not an accident is eventually found through stereochemistry. The poison is proved under a microscope to be an optically inactive (and therefore synthetic) form of muscarine.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: A slightly convoluted example. Miss Milsom, after a man barges into her room in the dark, believes Munting is attempting to cheat on his fiancée with her; in actuality, Lathom is having an affair with Mrs. Harrison and went into the wrong room by mistake. Munting, though disapproving, agrees not to set the record straight if it means he won't have to live with Lathom anymore. Fortunately for Munting, his fiancée, the only person whose opinion he really values, doesn't believe the story for a moment.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: One of the main POV characters, Jack Munting, is a novelist; lampshaded by Paul Harrison when he notes that even Munting's private letters to his fiancée have the structure and flair of something crafted for a wider readership.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: The motive for the murder. Lathom was having an affair with Margaret Harrison and killed her husband when she refused to divorce him.
  • Odd Friendship: Subverted; at first it looks like Munting and Lathom are this trope, but as time goes on it becomes obvious that they are terribly suited as housemates and in fact weren't really friends in the first place. By the time Munting moves out and marries, the relationship is awkward and distant at best and the reveal of Lathom as the murderer kills it for good.
  • Only Sane Man: Jack Munting sees himself as this while living in the Bayswater house and his perspective is evidently meant to be the one the reader should trust.
  • "Rashomon"-Style / Unreliable Narrator: The same events are frequently recounted from different perspectives in different letters, and those perspectives are often partially or totally incompatible, leaving it up the readers' judgment to decide whose version is most credible.
  • Real Men Cook: Harrison's one true passion is gathering and cooking food, particularly mushrooms; he complains that his wife is disinterested in cuisine and their live-in companion Miss Milsom "has no real feeling for cookery".
  • Reclusive Artist: In-universe: Munting, though he enjoys the company of his fiancée, would prefer it if everyone else left him alone to finish his book.
    • Inverted with Lathom, who seems incapable of getting any painting done if he isn't talking to someone about it. Even if it's the middle of the night.
  • Sexless Marriage: The Harrisons have one. Which is why Margaret completely panics when she thinks Lathom has gotten her pregnant — she can't even seduce her husband into sleeping with her to cover it up.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Lathom and Margaret, at least from what we see in her letters, and we can assume the tone of his side of the correspondence is similar. Justified becaise they are private letters, but nonetheless over-the-top and cloying (especially when compared with Munting's much more restrained, but still genuinely affectionate, letters to his fiancée).
  • Similar Item Confusion: The inquest rules that Harrison accidentally poisoned himself by mistaking the lethal Amanita muscaria for the benign Amanita rubescens. Murder is not brought up as a possibility until the victim's son insists that his father, an expert mycologist, would never make such an elementary mistake and sets out to prove that the whole thing is much more nefarious. He's correct, naturally.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: The murderer slipped synthetic muscarine into Harrison's prized mushroom stew, knowing an investigation would conclude that he poisoned himself by mistake.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Miss Milsom feels responsible to knit and sew for anyone she feels might be in need (whether they want her to or not).
  • Your Cheating Heart: The murder plot turns on Mrs. Harrison's affair with their tenant, Lathom.
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