#1944 Club: Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Title: Sparkling Cyanide
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944
Series: Colonel Race #4

Plot Summary: Six people reunite to remember beautiful Rosemary Barton, who died nearly a year before. The loving sister, the long-suffering husband, the devoted secretary, the lovers, the betrayed wife – none of them can forget Rosemary.

But did one of them murder her?

This was my first book for the 1944 club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

1944 was quite a year for Agatha Christie. She published Towards Zero and Sparkling Cyanide, as well as Death Comes As The End and Absent in the Spring under her romance nom de plume, Mary Westamacott. Interestingly, none of these books involved either of her main two sleuths, Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. Towards Zero is a Superintendent Battle book, Death Comes as the End is her sole foray into historical fiction, and Absent in the Spring is one of six romance novels that have been mostly lost to the sands of time – by which I mean they are available, but largely ignored.

Sparkling Cyanide was a reread for me – my first experience with the book was an audiobook on a trip with my family, which everyone enjoyed. This time around, I read the Pocket Book edition which I picked up for $3.00 at a bookstore in Newport, Oregon, which has, sadly, permanently closed. It was one of those lovely bookstores which has a cat, a fireplace, and teetering piles of books in which treasures are often buried.

While I do love both Poirot, with his leetle grey cells, and Jane Marple in her fuzzy cardigans, I am also a huge fan of both Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, as I have probably mentioned before. Sparkling Cyanide is a fantastic example of Agatha Christie’s skills in plotting and misdirection, and is the fourth in the Colonel Race series.

The plot begins with Rosemary, the empty-headed, pretty and very, very rich, young woman who has died of cyanide poisoning at a birthday party at the Luxembourg in London, surrounded by her husband, George Barton, her sister, Iris, her husband’s terrifyingly efficient secretary Ruth, Stephen and Alexandra Farraday, a Member of Parliament who is also her secret lover and his wife,and Anthony Browne, another of Rosemary’s erstwhile lovers. The death is ruled a suicide due to depression after influenza. About six months later, however, George begins to receive poison pen letters claiming that Rosemary’s death was no suicide.

It was murder.

The middle, longest section of the book deals with the six suspects. Each of them is given his/her own chapter and narrative where Christie lays out their motives. Rosemary was one of those careless, beautiful women who’ve long profited from being lovely, who breaks things and people simply because she can’t conceive that they might have needs that are different from her own. Everyone had motive to murder her, and her death almost universally profited her friends and family. Iris inherited her wealth, George was the cuckolded husband, Alexandra the cuckolded and devoted wife to Stephen, Stephen fears the truth of the affair being revealed, Ruth is in love with George, and Anthony is a cipher.

Colonel Race makes a brief appearance in the book as a friend of George’s father, who has known George since boyhood. He has been off in exotic places, far away, staving off threats to the British empire and arrives back in London to learn that George, on the heels of the letters, has scheduled a reenactment of Rosemary’s birthday party on the anniversary of her death, a spectacularly dangerous and terrible idea.

The solution to Sparkling Cyanide, or Remembered Death as it was called in America, is ingenious. All of the clues are there, but they are nearly impossible to put together until the end, when the answer comes together. It’s Agatha at her most brilliant, and I highly recommend it for fans of golden age/classic mysteries as well as fans of Agatha Christie.

The Eternity Ring by Patricia Wentworth

Title: The Eternity Ring
Author: Patricia Wentworth
Series: Miss Silver #14
First Published: 1948

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Mary Stokes was walking through Dead Man’s Copse one evening when she saw, in the beam of a torch, the corpse of a young woman dressed in a black coat, black gloves, no hat and an eternity ring set with diamonds in her ear. But when she and Detective Sergeant Frank Abbott went back to the wood, the body had vanished. This would have been mystery enough for Miss Silver…but then a woman reported that her lodger had gone out on Friday dressed in a black coat, black beret, black shoes and large hoop earrings set all around with little diamonds like those eternity rings. She never came back…

I have really started to develop a soft spot for Patricia Wentworth, which is awesome because she wrote so many books that I’ll be busy with her backlist for years. Decades, maybe.

Eternity Ring is nominally a Miss Silver mystery, although she barely appears in the book at all. The main investigator is Frank Abbot, who is a likeable Scotland Yard Inspector. As has been in the case in the two prior Miss Silver mysteries that I’ve read, this one also had a strong romantic subplot, with a young married couple, Cicely and Frank Hathaway who have separated before the murders begin. When the shadow of suspicion begins to fall on Frank, their future is seriously in jeopardy.

I figured out the murderer pretty early in the book by process primarily of elimination. It’s a good mystery, though, and has some tense moments of real danger near the end of the book. I enjoy Wentworth’s romantic subplots more than Georgette Heyer’s romantic subplots (in her mysteries), and wondered that she never wrote straight up romance until I went digging around on the internet and found that, actually, she came to crime writing by way of a few historical novels and mysteries.

Her first novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, was a piece of historical fiction set during the French revolution. It’s available as a kindle book from Open Road. Her second novel, A Little More Than Kin, seems to be entirely out of print at this point, and doesn’t even show up on Goodreads. I don’t know if it was published under another title, which could explain it’s absence, or if its just wholly lost. Her third and fourth novels were romances: The Devil’s Wind and The Fire Within. The Devil’s Wind looks particularly gripping, set in India, which is also where Wentworth was born, during the Cawnpore Massacre. These are both available from Open Road. Her first mystery, The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, is a bit more difficult to locate, but is still available used.

I still think that I liked Latter End a bit better than this one, and the first one I read, Grey Mask, remains my least favorite of her books. I have a few more on my kindle, and my library has about 25 available, so it’ll be a while before I exhaust my ready supply.

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Saltmarsh Murders
Author: Gladys Mitchell
Series: Mrs. Bradley #4
First published: 1932

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Noel Wells, curate in the sleepy village of Saltmarsh, likes to spend his time dancing in the study with the vicar’s niece, until one day the vicar’s unpleasant wife discovers her unmarried housemaid is pregnant and trouble begins.

It is left to Noel to call for the help of sometime-detective and full-time psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley, who sets out on an unnervingly unorthodox investigation into the mysterious pregnancy, an investigation that also takes in a smuggler, the village lunatic, a missing corpse, a public pillory, an exhumation and, of course, a murderer.

Mrs. Bradley is easily one of the most memorable personalities in crime fiction and in this classic whodunit she proves that some English villages can be murderously peaceful.

Opinionated, unconventional, unafraid… If you like Poirot and Miss Marple, you’ll love Mrs Bradley.

This was my first foray into the long-running Mrs. Bradley series by Gladys Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell was born in 1901, and published her first Mrs. Bradley mystery, A Speedy Death, in 1929. She was a prolific author, publishing 66 of the Mrs. Bradley mysteries. She was also a teacher in girls schools for many years (now I’m thinking Miss Bulstrode, from The Cat Among the Pigeons), and was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. She was more prolific than both.

The Saltmarsh Murders is book #4 in the series. I’ve never seen the Diana Riggs BBC adaptation, from 1998-2000, and this series didn’t really make it onto my radar screen until a friend referenced it in a blog post. After seeing the reference, I jumped over to Amazon to find out more and noted that all of the Mrs. Bradley books are available in the Kindle Unlimited Library. I’ve not yet cancelled my KU subscription, so I decided to check out one of them and see what I thought. This was literally a stab in the dark. I liked the title – it sound appropriately atmospheric – so I downloaded it and started reading.

Mrs. Bradley’s full name is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, which is just too good for me to overlook. The book is partially narrated by a young curate, and I was getting some (erroneous) Murder of Roger Ackroyd vibes from his narration. It’s a quirky tale, and I was frankly surprised, and not really convinced, by who-actually-dun-it. Mrs. Bradley herself was eccentric, and somewhat peculiar, not to mention physically hideous (she is variously described as crocodilian and reptilian, her hands clawlike). But it was fun to read, and I want to read more so I can get a better handle on the series.

According to Wikipedia, critical opinion is divided on what is her best work, her strengths and style can be gleaned from the following 16 books: The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), Death at the Opera (1934), The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), Come Away, Death (1937), Brazen Tongue (1940), When Last I Died (1941), The Rising of the Moon (1945), Death and the Maiden (1947), The Dancing Druids (1948), Tom Brown’s Body (1949), Groaning Spinney (1950), The Echoing Strangers (1952), Merlin’s Furlong (1953), Dance to Your Daddy (1969), Nest of Vipers (1979), and The Greenstone Griffins (1983). This provides a helpful entree into the series.

There is a Gladys Mitchell tribute site, which can be found here, and which provides additional resources.