The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

Sparkling CyanideIn which Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant – presumably suicide. However, a year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that dining party. It takes Colonel Race, alongside Inspector Kemp, and a third law enforcement officer, to work out exactly what happened to both victims. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Yellow IrisThe book bears no dedication. Sparkling Cyanide was first serialised in the US in the Saturday Evening Post from July to September 1944 under the title Remembered Death, and in the UK in the Daily Express in a heavily abridged form in July 1945 as Sparkling Cyanide – a year later than its American serialisation. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1945, and in the UK in December 1945 by Collins Crime Club. The book is an expansion of the short story Yellow Iris, that was first published in the Strand Magazine in July 1937. It also appeared in the book The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, that was first published in the US in 1939. Yellow Iris was not published in the UK until its appearance in Problem at Pollensa Bay in 1991.

DInner Party for sixThis book is a curiosity. I found it quite hard to read at first; the characters and the reminiscences didn’t hold my attention, and I found it strangely easy to put down and leave for several days (ahem weeks) before picking it up again and rekindling my interest. It’s separated into three “books”, each with an introductory quotation. The first book lets us share the reminiscences of the six survivors of the first dinner party and I found it, in part, a little confusing and, basically, an unattractive read. Once we reached the point where the second death is being investigated it suddenly seemed to gain life and entertainment and I was keen to read more of it. In fact, I read the final two thirds of it in two days, which is pretty quick and determined for me.

Champagne Afternoon TeaHowever, there is something about it that is strangely unsatisfying. Yes, the gallop to the final post is very exciting, but it’s also (in my humble opinion) hugely far-fetched and relies on a very risky gamble; that a group of people will all act in a certain way if a certain event takes place – sorry to be vague, but I don’t want to give away the game. I’m absolutely convinced that, if I were one of that group of people, I would not have acted in the way that the murderer – or indeed the detectives – predicted. It also suffers a little from the same fate that befalls Five Little Pigs; there is a considerable amount of repetition, particularly in the first section, about things that happened in the past, and you’ve no choice but to wade through it in order to get on with the more interesting things happening in the present.

Truth versus liesThere’s one interesting aspect to this book though, and it’s very appropriate to our own times, that if you tell a lie sufficiently frequently and with sufficient conviction, it’s accepted as the truth. Just as the denouement is about to get underway, the character who has finally worked out what happened and why, gives us this clue: “Consider for yourself how much has been taken for granted on one person’s word.” At that point the reader takes up this challenge and tries to work out to whom this refers, and what facts have been taken for granted that aren’t necessarily true. When I was reading it, I couldn’t remember whodunit from my earlier readings of it; and even this clue didn’t bring me to my senses, despite my trying to solve it. But it’s true; a web of hearsay deceit has been planted under our noses and we never tumble to it. It reminded me with hideous accuracy of the politicians of our day; when no one is held accountable for the truth, preposterous lies are accepted with absolute certainty as fact.

Military colonelIt’s a welcome return to the excellent Colonel Race, whom we first saw in The Man in the Brown Suit, way back in 1924, where he was a spy, a detective, and a wealthy big game hunter, not necessarily in that order. He assists Poirot in Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile, although his prime interest is in political espionage rather than murder. It’s by means of a letter of introduction from Colonel Race that local police chief Colonel Carbury meets Poirot in Appointment with Death.

AllahabadAs a result of those previous meetings, you get the feeling that if someone has met someone else in another part of the world, Colonel Race will nearly always be a mutual acquaintance. Race only becomes involved in the Sparkling Cyanide case because he is a friend of George Barton, whose wife Rosemary may have taken her own life. When he encounters Mary Rees-Talbot as part of his enquiries, she notes that they haven’t met “since you disappeared so mysteriously from Allahabad that time”. When Inspector Kemp meets the cantankerous General Lord Woolworth alongside Race, the general spits out an anti-police polemic until he espies the Colonel, and breaks off with,”“Seen you somewhere. Now where -?” Race’s answer was immediate and came with a smile. “Badderpore, 1923.” “By Jove,” said the general. “If it isn’t Johnnie Race! What are you doing mixed up in this show?” Race smiled.” Rather like God, Race clearly moves in mysterious ways and is omnipresent.

Good brainIn the Christie canon, Race is a good man; he gets things done, and isn’t afraid to put his head into the lion’s den, so to speak. And although he’s got a good brain, and patiently thinks things through, he’s also not afraid to get things wrong, in public, as he does a couple of times in this book. It’s a shame that this is the last we see of him; Christie never chose to feature him again. Even when we get to consider its original appearance as the short story Yellow Iris, in Problem at Pollensa Bay, which will be right at the end of this Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s a Hercule Poirot story – Christie changed it to Colonel Race for this book.

MahoganyWhat of Chief Inspector Kemp? This is the only book in which he appears. We know that, as an officer from Scotland Yard, he doesn’t usually deal with common or garden murders, but the presence of Stephen and Sandra Farraday (an MP and the daughter of a Lord) numbering among the suspects, the case requires his sensitive touch. Race (naturally) is an old friend. Here’s Christie’s description of him: “Kemp was slightly reminiscent of that grand old veteran, Battle, in type. Indeed, since he had worked under Battle for many years, he had perhaps unconsciously copied a good many of the older man’s mannerisms. He bore about him the same suggestion of being carved all in one piece – but whereas Battle had suggested some wood such as teak or oak, Chief Inspector Kemp suggested a somewhat more showy wood – mahogany, say, or good old-fashioned rosewood.” Coming from a more privileged background, and enjoying the benefits of great wealth, Race is there to smooth out any rough edges that Kemp might have, intelligent, though ploddy, policeman that he is.

Brook StreetAs usual, there are a few references to check out. First: locations. This is a very London-centric story. The Bartons and Iris live in Elvaston Square, which, sadly doesn’t exist in real life, although there is an Elvaston Mews in South Kensington, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall. Other London locations in the book are Cadogan Square, the home of the Rees-Talbot family, and Brook Street, home of the Woodworths. Both are real; in fact, Brook Street has already been used as a location in Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun; Christie must have had some personal experience of this address.

fairhaven-golf-clubOutside the centre of London, Chloe West lives at 15 Merryvale Court, Maida Vale and 21 Malland Mansions, Earl’s Court, is a flat where, let’s just say, Farraday pays rent but he doesn’t live there. Both of those addresses are fictitious, albeit in real-life suburbs. Ruth meets Victor at the Rupert Hotel, off Russell Square, and the Compradour, Mille Fleurs and the Luxembourg clubs and restaurants are all mentioned; but they’re all totally made up. However, Farraday asks his wife if they could go to Fairhaven for the golf – this is actually an area near Lytham St Annes on the Fylde Coast, where there is still a fine golf club bearing its name. Finally, the little place in the country that the Bartons take for the summer months is in Marlingham, Surrey; it doesn’t exist, but there is a Warlingham – just a slip of an upside-down letter separates them.

HouriAnd now some other references, that I thought were worth investigating. Browne reflects on his meeting with Rosemary Barton, and concludes: “as beautiful as a houri – and probably just about as intelligent!” Maybe you already knew that houris are the virgin companions who await Muslim faithful in paradise, according to the holy Quran. I didn’t. I understand the notion that they would be beautiful; apparently that relieves them from the burden of being intelligent too. I wondered if this was an early example of islamophobia – I sense not, but am open to arguments on this one if you know better!

Master of the HorseAnthony Browne proudly boasts to Rosemary that there was a chamberlain to Henry VIII with the same name. It’s true; Sir Anthony Browne (1500 – 1548) was appointed Master of the Horse in 1539, having proved his loyalty to the king three years earlier when he was sent to contend with the Catholic protesters during the Pilgrimage of Grace. The king so trusted him that, at the end of his life, he gave Browne a dry stamp with which to sign letters in the king’s name. Impressive!

Cachet FaivreRosemary asks Sandra Farraday, whilst in the ladies’ toilets (even in Christie-land ladies all go to the toilets together) for a Cachet Faivre to help with her headache. This was a pain medication containing caffeine and quinine. There’s a scene in Noel Coward’s The Vortex where one of the characters asks the butler to fetch her one; and in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, hotel landlady Lottie remarks, “Half the young fellows as come here now don’t have anything except a cachet Faivre and some orange juice.” Sounds like the mid-20th century version of a Red Bull.

EatonsLucilla Drake remembers when Eaton’s Syrup was administered as a health tonic when she was young. At one time, Eaton’s in Winnipeg had the reputation of being the largest department store in the world and was a leader in the world of mail order sales, with a wide range of tonics and medicines, including a kidney cure mixture, a sore throat mixture and a “syrup of Eucalyptus, White Pine and Wild Cherry Compound”. It was clearly a cure-all medicine; I’ve found a 1906 account of treatment of malaria which included Eaton’s syrup during convalescence. The company was acquired by Sears Canada in 1999, and the company closed down in 2018. However, the Eaton Centre in Toronto is still a go-to shopping mall.

wedding rings Iris receives a proposal of marriage. However, she replies, “I’m not of age. I’m only eighteen.” Today, of course, Iris would be well within the legal maturity for marriage. However, back in 1945, you had to be 21 to get married without parental consent. Even today, there are some countries (China and the Central African Republic) where a man has to be 22 to get married, even with parental consent.

AgamemnonLord and Lady Kidderminster are said to look at each other “so might Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have stared at each other with the word Iphigenia on their lips”. Very classical. I’m sure you know, but Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who commanded the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The goddess Artemis required Agamemnon to kill Iphigenia as a human sacrifice in order for his troops to reach Troy. They were tough times in those mythical days.

Rudyard KiplingColonel Race confronts one of the characters and accuses them of not being who they say they are. That person replies, “for the Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin”. I’d heard that reference before but never known its derivation. It’s from a rather crude poem called The Ladies (c.1890) by Rudyard Kipling, where a chap recollects all the women he’s slept with and concludes that, despite their differences in class and race, basically, they’re all the same.

tennysonAs mentioned earlier, quotations introduce each of the three sections that make up the entire book. Part one, entitled Rosemary, begins with “what can I do to drive away remembrance from mine eyes?” which is the opening line from a poem by John Keats written in 1819. Part two, entitled All Souls’ Day, begins “that’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”, which even I remembered was a line by Ophelia in Hamlet. Part Three, Iris, begins “for I thought that the dead had peace, But it is not so…” which comes from section sixteen of Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Despite many times alluding to the size of Iris’ inheritance when she comes of age, there’s only one sum mentioned in this book – £200, which is the amount that Victor cons out of Lucilla. That’s around £6000 in today’s value, that the little swine took.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sparkling Cyanide:

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in December 1989, price £3.25. The cover illustration simply shows a popped champagne cork and a calendar page for 2nd November that has been partially burned. Not sure of the significance of the burning.

How many pages until the first death: There are two ways to consider this. We discover that Rosemary died on page one. However, if you’re waiting for a real-time death, you have to wait until page 120. That sounds like a long wait; however, this impression has many more spaces and gaps in its printing than most earlier Christies. Page 120 is about halfway through the book.

Funny lines out of context: One can always rely on Christie’s somewhat archaic use of the “E” word.

“His satisfaction was short-lived, for another thought struck him with the force of a physical blow. He ejaculated out loud.”

“His name soon became known as that of a “coming” young man.”

Memorable characters:

Having been rather spoilt by Christie with her characterisations in her more recent books, this is one area where this book disappoints. You have the strong independence of Ruth Lessing, the devil-may-care bad-boy nature of Anthony Browne, and – perhaps – the political expediency and ambition of Stephen Farraday, but apart from that most of the characters are fairly bland.

Christie the Poison expert:

The clue is in the title! Although cyanide – cyanide of potassium as she refers to it – is the method of poisoning for both deaths in the book, Christie doesn’t go into much detail as to how it works or the effect on its victims. She just points out how it makes anyone who takes it turn blue – “the blue cyanosed face, the convulsed clutching fingers”, as Iris recollects. A third death is averted; however, that wouldn’t have been caused by cyanide poisoning.

Class/social issues of the time:

Most of Christie’s favourite themes crop up in this book, but only occasionally, and without great significance. Take, for instance, feminism and the role of women in society. Most of the women in this book have good social standing but only one, Ruth Lessing, could be described as independent and self-reliant. Rosemary relied on relationships; Sandra Farraday confirms that she couldn’t survive without her husband, no matter what he’d done; Iris demurely waits for life to come to her rather than the other way around. Feeblest of all, Lucilla Drake is depicted as a scatty windbag, powerless against the devious manipulations of her son.

Consider Lucilla’s assessment of George’s domestic lifestyle: “George is very well looked after at present. What more can he want, I should like to know? Excellent meals and his mending seen to. Very pleasant for him to have an attractive young girl like you about the house and when you marry some day I should hope I was still capable of seeing to his comfort and looking after his health. Just as well or better than a young woman out of an office could do – what does she know about housekeeping? Figures and ledgers and shorthand and typing – what good is that in a man’s home?” Clearly she feels that a woman’s role is simply to support a man.

There’s also an amusing interchange between Colonel Race and Inspector Kemp about women in society. “”Do you think she is the type to slip incriminating evidence into a girl’s handbag? A perfectly innocent girl, mind, who has never harmed her in any way? […]” Inspector Kemp squirmed uneasily in his seat and peered into his teacup. “Women don’t play cricket,” he said. “If that’s what you mean.” “Actually, a lot of them do,” said Race, smiling. “But I’m glad to see you look uncomfortable.””

The book was published at the end of the Second World War, when the nations of the world looked to their political leaders for inspiration and help to see them out of the mess of the previous six years. Whether you can tie in the character of Stephen Farraday with that inspiration, I’m not sure; but I did enjoy Christie’s gently savage description of his rise up the ranks: “At twenty-two Stephen came down from Oxford with a good degree, a reputation as a good and witty speaker, and a knack of writing articles. He had also made some useful friends. Politics were what attracted him. […] Though by predilection a Liberal, Stephen realised that, for the moment at least, the Liberal Party was dead. He joined the ranks of the Labour Party. […] But the Labour Party did not satisfy Stephen. He found it less open to new ideas, more hidebound by tradition than its great and powerful rival. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were on the look-out for promising young talent. They approved of Stephen Farraday – he was just the type they wanted. He contested a fairly solid Labour constituency and won it by a very narrow majority. It was with a feeling of triumph that Stephen took his seat in the House of Commons. […]

“Nevertheless, once the excitement of actually being in the House had subsided, he experienced swift disillusionment. The hardly fought election had put him in the limelight, now he was down in the rut, a mere insignificant unit of the rank and file, subservient to the party whips, and kept in his place. It was not easy here to rise out of obscurity. […] One needed something above ability. One needed influence. […] He considered marriage […] some handsome creature who would stand hand in hand with him sharing his life and his ambitions; who would give him children and to whom he could unburden his thoughts and perplexities. Some woman who felt as he did and who would be eager for his success and proud of him when he achieved it.” In other words, a purely self-seeking, self-interested social climber with no thought of service to the nation. It’s not difficult to see in which direction Christie’s political loyalties swung from her description of the three main parties!

There are a couple of minor moments of xenophobia and racial issues, although perhaps not as much as in some of Christie’s books. Christine Shannon explains “that’s why I don’t like Dagoes. When they’ve drunk too much they’re not a bit refined any more – a girl never knows what unpleasantness she may be let in for.” That’s an example of both using a detrimental term and stereotyping an entire range of people to one type of bad behaviour. On another occasion, George Barton tells Race about Rosemary’s death and says that the cabaret was “one of those negro shows”. With the benefit of hindsight, and remembering the popularity of the Black and White Minstrels right up into the late 1980s, that’s actually quite polite for the time.

I was interested by the suggestion that a psychiatrist – or what Christie calls “a nerve specialist […] one of these modern men” advised George that “after a shock of any kind, the trouble must be faced, not avoided” and this is – perhaps – the reason that he calls for the dinner party to be “re-run” as it were at the restaurant where Rosemary died. It’s not often that Christie expresses concern for mental health in her books; it must have been a new consideration of the time. But there’s also some very backward-looking thought processes going on, when Race attributes one of the motives for the crime to “bad blood”. A character is associated with guilt because their mother is “feeble in intellect and incapable of concentration”, their father is “weak, vicious and a drunkard” and their sister is “emotionally unstable.” “A family history of weakness, vice and instability. Predisposing causes.” Talk about judgemental! Wouldn’t go down well in a court of law today.

Classic denouement: The denouement creeps up on the reader and you find you’re at that point of the book without it having been made obvious by the writer. Granted, it’s extremely exciting, but I wouldn’t call it a classic, as the perpetrator is not present at the time and therefore cannot be accused dramatically by the detectives. And there’s also the question of the outrageously unlikely modus operandi of the crime, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph but one….

Happy ending? Wedding bells in the offing for one couple, although there is a sense of sadness at the end of the book for those who died, which means this book definitely ends in a minor key.

Did the story ring true? NO!!!! As I mentioned earlier on, the whole set-up of the crime relies 100% on a group of people acting in one particular way – like a herd instinct – when presented with a particular set of events. And I just don’t believe it. But I can’t explain that to you without giving away the game.

Overall satisfaction rating: There are a few passages where the writing is highly entertaining, and the detective investigations are highly readable. But it’s also very slow to start and is spoiled by its stupid resolution, so on balance I’m downgrading it to a 6/10.

The HollowThanks for reading my blog of Sparkling Cyanide and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Hollow, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about the book but I do remember that a few years back we saw a stage adaptation of the story – and it was pretty awful! So I’m hoping that the original book is much better. Only one way to find out! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!