Sparkling Cyanide is one of four Christie books in which Col. Race appears. We meet him at different stages in his life in different books. An army-man who has been among other places, in India, Race is also an MI 5 operative. As part of a group challenge reading lesser known Christie books, of which this was one entry, I also re-read earlier in the year The Man in the Brown Suit where Race is relatively younger, and even proposes to one of the characters (in fact, he could well be a suspect in that one). In Sparkling Cyanide, he is 60, and actively participates in the investigation. (In two other books, he appears with Poirot).

In this book, a year before the events of story take place, Rosemary Barton, young, wealthy (she had inherited a vast fortune from her godfather) very beautiful but not very bright was at a party thrown for her birthday by her and her husband, the kindly but much older George at the Luxembourg restaurant. The other guests were Rosemary’s younger sister Iris Marle, politician Stephen Farraday and his wife Lady Alexandra, the handsome and charming Anthony Browne, a friend of Rosemary, and Ruth Lessing, George’s trusted assistant. Rosemary was just recovering from the ‘flu and somewhat depressed, so when she fell down dead at her table, having consumed potassium cyanide in her champagne, the verdict was suicide.

But some months after that shocking occurrence, George Barton begins to receive anonymous letters claiming that Rosemary never committed suicide but was murdered. George who loved his wife very much despite being well aware of her character, decides to take matters into his own hands and sets what he thinks will be a trap for the killer, recreating the events of the previous year—a party at the same restaurant, with the same guests, same table and possibly food—only one empty chair where Rosemary would have been. The excuse is Iris’ birthday. George goes ahead with his plans despite a warning from his friend Col. Race whom he had also invited, and history repeats itself, as another of the party dies, in just the same way.

The police in the form of Inspector Kemp (who we are informed had worked under another Christie regular, Superintendent Battle), and Col. Race begin to investigate the deaths, visiting and speaking to not only the guests at the party but also other characters like prior employees in the Barton home, Lucilla Drake, the poor cousin who has been invited to live with George for he asks Iris to continue to live with him, and others who were out dining at the Luxembourg that night. Can Kemp and Race identify whodunit?

This was actually rather different in its structure from other Christie books—we have the book divided into three sections: in the first we ‘meet’ each of the characters who were at the Rosemary’s birthday party that fateful evening. We learn about how they viewed her, their relationship with her, filled in most cases with resentment or complaint, even though she seemed to have been much adored by them all. The second segment covers George’s attempts at trapping the murderer and the second tragedy that occurs, while the third is the investigation by Kemp and Race.

The first segment reminded me very much of another Christie I read earlier this year, Ordeal by Innocence, for like in that book, this gives us an opportunity to get into our characters’ minds, understand their thoughts, and their motivations (and possible reasons for killing Rosemary), which don’t come through in her usual stories where we are viewing characters from the detective’s (or a third person’s) perspective. This makes it somewhat more interesting if one is trying to work out the solution for oneself.

The mystery element in the book I thought was very well done; though we have some clues (mostly to personality traits) which might help us guess whodunit, the solution is fairly complicated and despite having read the book before (too long ago to remember much), I was on the wrong track on many things. We have of course, more than one character with a secret, but may be not as many red herrings as there sometimes are. For motives there are all the usual reasons—love (and hate), jealousy, secrets and money but which was it that finally drove the killer? Christie managed to surprise me as always.

The investigation too, was interesting to watch unfold. Race and Kemp must tread carefully for some of the suspects—Stephen and Lady Alexandra are influential and well connected. They, particularly Race, seems to follow the same path as Poirot does giving the people he is speaking to the chance to talk, and in the processes picking up usual information and uncovering secrets. But it isn’t Race that ultimately solves the mystery… The book made for really good reading with a cast of characters with very different personalities, a complicated mystery, and a solution that I certainly didn’t see coming.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

    1. I hope you can manage to fit her in. I love her ‘puzzles’ and the fact that she always manages to send one down the wrong path despite giving us enough clues which inevitably only strike one on hindsight.

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  1. You’re so right about Christie’s complicated whodunits! I’ve read this book a couple of times, but have completely forgotten the solution, though I do remember both dinner parties and most of the characters. I think that Col. Race comes in “Death on the Nile” too.

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