Last month I took my first steps in a grand undertaking to read all of the crime stories by Agatha Christie other than those containing Poirot or Miss Marple by reading Ordeal By Innocence. This month I selected Sparkling Cyanide. Technically it is not entirely new to me as I had listened to a radio production a few years ago but it transpired I didn’t remember a thing about it…
Rosemary Barton died from cyanide poisoning at her birthday dinner in a restaurant surrounded by six friends and family. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide but a year later her husband, George, receives anonymous notes that suggest she was actually murdered leading him to suspect that the murderer must have been one of their party.
The novel is divided into three distinct phases. The first introduces each of the suspects and their possible motive for being the killer. The second describes how those six characters end up at a dinner recreating Rosemary’s death. The third and final section features Colonel Race taking up the investigation and solving the mystery.
I really enjoyed the way Christie introduces us to the cast of characters while also outlining the facts of the case. They are an interesting assortment of likely killers and these chapters which vary considerably in length provide memorable introductions for each.
While all of the characters are strong, I was particularly struck by the character of Stephen Farraday, a rising politician. Christie presents him as an opportunist whose tendencies would suggest that he is a Liberal except that he can see no future with them because they have no chance of attaining power. Instead he makes overtures to the Labour party before deciding that his best chances for advancement would lie with the Conservative party. I encountered several Farradays in my time working as a political professional so this character rang particularly true to me.
The other characters are similarly strong however and I think that the quality of that characterization plays a big part in the success of this novel. Given that the formal murder investigation will not begin until two-thirds of the way into the novel, our attention is held because these characters are psychologically interesting and very well drawn. Christie balances the time she gives to the various suspects and utilizes the multiple perspectives approach well, taking care to
Discussion of the mystery itself is a little challenging because there are some key developments that take place late in the novel that I would hate to spoil. What I can say is that Christie devised a puzzle that is very neat and tidy in spite of its seeming impossibility. Eyewitness accounts make it clear that no one had the opportunity to tamper with the glasses of champagne while the party were away dancing and yet the poison was administered.
While I felt I knew who had done it and why, I could not understand how the murder was achieved. When the explanation is given it turns out to be quite devastatingly simple and very satisfying. In my opinion it ranks among Christie’s very best because it does not require elaborate plot explanations to work and it is very easily explained.
The man tasked with providing that explanation is Colonel Race, a name that may be familiar from a couple of Poirot novels. According to Goodreads I am supposed to consider Sparkling Cyanide the fourth book in the Colonel Race series but that feels like a bit of a stretch as in every other respect the book stands alone. Race is certainly a thoughtful and diligent sleuth and I think his plainness makes him an interesting contrast to Poirot in particular but his presence here neither requires or benefits from any prior knowledge. As it happens I had selected the earlier Colonel Race novel, The Man in the Brown Suit, to be my next non-series Christie selection for January so I will soon have another opportunity to reacquaint myself with him.
He is not a particularly flashy detective and his personality is rather dull. On several occasions he is presented in description as being something of a relic of British Imperialism. He does possess a keen mind however and I appreciated that Christie keeps her suspect interviews from dragging on, preferring to keep the narrative moving.
Overall, I think Sparkling Cyanide is a really entertaining Christie story. It is beautifully paced and the characterization is very strong. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, devouring it in a single sitting and would strongly recommend it to anyone curious to try Christie for the first time.