The March theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story featuring a society figure’. I had narrowed my choices down to the Poirot novel Lord Edgware Dies and the Colonel Race mystery Sparkling Cyanide. As I had just read a Poirot in February and have another one lined up for April, I decided to go with this one, Sparkling Cyanide. First published in 1945, the novel is an extended version of one of Christie’s short stories, Yellow Iris, which I haven’t read – but apparently the culprit is someone different in that story, so both are worth reading.
The novel begins one year after the death of Rosemary Barton, a beautiful heiress who had been celebrating her birthday at the Luxembourg restaurant with friends and family. The cause of death was believed to be cyanide in Rosemary’s champagne and it was assumed that she had committed suicide due to depression following an illness. Her husband George accepted the verdict at the time but has now received some anonymous letters stating that Rosemary was actually murdered. Sure that the murderer must have been one of the other people at the table, George decides to recreate the dinner party by inviting the same guests to the same restaurant in the hope that he will be able to identify the culprit. However, things don’t go according to plan and the evening ends with a second death…
The characterisation in this book is very strong and Christie begins by giving us one chapter from the perspective of each of the six dinner party guests, so that the nature of their relationship with Rosemary and their thoughts and feelings about her are clear from the start. It is quickly established that each of them had a possible motive for wanting Rosemary dead, but it doesn’t seem at first that any of them actually had the opportunity to carry out the murder. With the second death, things become even more complicated as this murder appears to be an almost impossible crime. I very rarely manage to solve an Agatha Christie mystery, but this is one that I found particularly difficult, despite paying close attention to the descriptions of the seating plans in the restaurant and even sketching a few diagrams! The eventual explanation, when it comes, seems quite unlikely and relies on a certain sequence of events that could easily have happened in a different way with a different result. However, I didn’t feel cheated as I don’t think any clues were withheld from us – I just didn’t put them together correctly!
The detective in this novel is Colonel Race rather than one of Christie’s more famous detectives such as Poirot or Marple – not that he really seems to do a lot of detecting. In fact, one of the suspects makes a bigger contribution to the solving of the mystery than he does. Still, Race is a straightforward, unobtrusive character who just quietly gets on with his investigations, makes mistakes now and then and isn’t afraid to admit that he has got things wrong. This is the first book I’ve read in which he appears; I think there are only three others, but as I’m hoping to read or re-read all of Christie’s novels eventually I’ll be meeting him again at some point.