(HarperCollins 2006: in ‘1940s Omnibus’, originally published 1945)
Like Towards Zero, Sparkling Cyanide is one of Christie’s ‘stand-alone’ detective novels published during the war years but which does not refer to the war and seems to be set before it. Colonel Race, who features as a minor character in several of Christie’s other novels, such as Death on the Nile and Cards on the Table, appears in this, though in this he takes a more leading role in the investigation along with an Inspector Kemp.
As the book begins, Iris Marle is remembering her sister Rosemary Barton, who died by cyanide poisoning a year previously, and since this traumatic event, no-one who knew Rosemary has been entirely unchanged. Although the inquest brought in a verdict of suicide, George Barton, Rosemary’s husband, has had his own theories about her death, feeling sure that his wife’s lover or someone else at the party had something to do with it. He suspects Stephen Farraday, a rising young politician, or Stephen’s wife Alexandra, both of whom were at the dinner party at which Rosemary died, or Rosemary’s friend Anthony Browne, who is now paying attentions to Iris. In order to verify his suspicions, he organises a dinner party at the same hotel on the anniversary of Rosemary’s death, with the same guests, including his secretary Ruth Lessing.
“They had all come.
George breathed a sigh of relief. Up to the last moment he had feared some last minute defection – but they were all here. Stephen Farraday, tall and stiff, a little pompous in manner. Sandra Farraday in a severe black velvet gown wearing emeralds around her neck. The woman had breeding, not a doubt of it. Her manner was completely natural, possibly a little more gracious than usual. Ruth also in black with no ornament save one jewelled clip. Her raven black hair smooth and lying close to her head, her neck and arms very white – whiter than those of the other women. Ruth was a working girl, she had no long leisured ease in which to acquire sun tan. His eyes met hers and, as though she saw the anxiety in his, she smiled reassurance. His heart lifted. Loyal Ruth. Beside him Iris was unusually silent. She alone showed consciousness of this being an unusual party. She was pale but in some way it suited her, gave her a grave steadfast beauty. She wore a straight simple frock of leaf-green. Anthony Browne came last, and to George’s mind, he came with the quick stealthy step of a wild creature – a panther, perhaps, or a leopard. The fellow wasn’t really quite civilised.
They were all there – all safe in George’s trap. Now, the play could begin…”
However, before he can spring his planned surprise, George himself dies of cyanide poisoning during the meal. Since Iris is suspected of having killed George, afraid that he knew that she had killed Rosemary for her money (to which Iris was heir), Anthony (who is in love with Iris) determines to investigate in order to clear her name, though at first he is presented to the reader as something of a shady character himself, and about whom even Iris knows very little. Has he been the source of industrial espionage? or is he something else entirely?
Christie shows us the viewpoints of many of the characters involved, including Iris, the Farradays, Anthony, and Race, amongst others, though she is careful to allow some degree of uncertainty in the dialogue and interactions between the characters, and some are entirely unreliable. The police also have to deal with the politically influential family of Lady Alexandra, the Kidderminsters, who don’t make their investigation entirely straightforward. The distance between Stephen and Sandra, for example, is well-developed and realistic, as well as his sudden realisation that he really does love her. The mystery is carefully plotted, and is realistically deduced; the method of the murder and its performance are very cleverly done, and are plausible.
However, the ending falls a little flat, since the murderer – although with a strong motive – fails to figure much in the narrative and thus the solution feels a little contrived. However, there’s a strong atmosphere in this book, and a nicely done air of distrust, and the characters are interesting – Iris, in particular, but also the absent Rosemary, who comes across very strongly via the memories of others, and with whom this reader ended up sympathising, though she had evidently been rather a stupid and selfish young woman.