The redbrick and wistaria streets of fashionable Georgetown in Washington DC have been shaken from their August slumber this week by an apparent murder mystery with a cast of eccentrics worthy of Poirot – the victim, an ageing socialite; the suspect, her much younger husband; and a plot that has everyone puzzled.
When medics sped last Friday to the townhouse on Q Street that belonged to 91-year-old Viola Drath, a German émigré well known for hosting soirées with her comparatively youthful husband, Albrecht Muth, they thought they were responding to an accident. She was dead on the floor, the cause listed as "head trauma from a fall".
"I am sad to advise that my dear wife of nearly 25 years passed last night," Mr Muth, 47 – who wears military uniform when walking in the neighbourhood and has claimed to be an Iraqi Army officer – emailed friends. "Funeral arrangements are pending."
The passing of Ms Drath was at that point one of those sad deaths that did not go unnoticed in a city where guest lists and dinner invitations are the currency of influence and status.
She and her husband had in recent times hosted the likes of Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court Justice; Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli; and Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Egypt, as well as several prominent American political journalists.
But sympathy has since turned to intrigue. After conducting an autopsy, Washington authorities changed their view of how she might have passed away. They found evidence of strangulation as well as blunt trauma.
On Sunday they searched the posh townhouse for evidence. By Tuesday evening they had charged Mr Muth with second-degree murder.
Ms Drath, known for her pearls and thickly applied make-up, once wrote for Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper.
After emigrating to the US, she married US Army colonel Francis S Drath in 1947. She found work writing for the Washington Times.
Those who accepted invitations to the Drath-Muth home in recent months were seemingly drawn in part by promises of rubbing shoulders with high officials of the Iraqi military and embassy. But in the wake of this week's events, Iraqi officials in Washington have insisted Mr Muth's tales of proximity to them were false.
"We are deeply troubled by Mr Muth's claim of his service in the Iraqi military. He is not currently and has never been a member of the Iraqi Army," the Iraqi embassy in Washington told The Washington Post. Yet at least one senior US official has reported anonymously having spied Mr Muth at official Iraqi embassy receptions.
Mr Muth had said publicly he was in a "marriage of convenience". His wife gave him a monthly allowance of £1,090, recently reduced from £1,200, and – according to letters found by police – had arranged for him to receive £91,000 in the event of her dying.
A Wall Street Journal reporter who attended a dinner at the house in April recalled this week how he and other guests were shown to seats while the hosts waited for a group of senior Iraqi officials to arrive. But they never did.
When the Iraqi embassy was asked the following day about the no-shows, officials said none of their staff had ever been invited.Reuse content