I am an enormous murder mystery fan and I have a particular fondness for Agatha Christie. To date, I’ve read about ten of her books and across the whole selection I’ve found her a tireless innovator, always tinkering with the formula of the murder mystery. Novels like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are famous for this, but even Murder on the Orient Express, likely her best known work, defies the usual routine of a murder followed by a systematic investigation, a dramatic confrontation and a satisfactory conclusion. In both of those novels, too, relatively archetypical characters are more vivacious and compelling than they have any right to be as mere mystery puzzle pieces. So I was excited to read Sparkling Cyanide, a novel I picked up for the price of a coffee.
Six people were at a dinner party where a woman, Rosemary Barton, apparently killed herself, and over the course of the first half of this novel, they’re forced to relive those events as they prepare for a dinner party in the same restaurant a year later. Sparkling Cyanide is my favorite type of Christie, more And Then There Were None than Murder on the Orient Express. That is, the emphasis here is on the victims of and witnesses to a crime rather than the detective. Uniquely, it’s unclear if a crime has been committed for the first third of the novel which allows the reader to get to know six characters under relatively normal circumstances before they’re thrown into chaos.
This experimental pacing, which to the best of my knowledge doesn’t reoccur in any other Christie novel, allows for more detailed, complex characters than is possible elsewhere. It’s possible to predict how these characters might react to the news that they witnessed a murder, and when that revelation comes it’s a delight. Since we follow the witnesses, too, we’re able to imagine a more complex internal life for each character, in contrast to most mysteries where impressions are filtered through the detective. It’s intriguing, too, to track the disjuncture between what characters think of each other and what they think the others know. Early, for instance, it’s revealed that Stephen Farraday had an affair with Rosemary. Throughout his chapter he’s self-conscious about the amount of times he was almost caught by his wife, Sandra. When it’s revealed that Sandra knew (but has not told him she knew) it reveals something of Sandra’s disposition and also something about Stephen, since he’s misjudged his wife spectacularly.
Supernatural elements are scrubbed absolutely from the mystery of Christie’s work: there are no solutions except those which can be explained rationally. The time before a murder is committed, however, is often replete with signs which suggest it’s coming. Characters gain extraordinary powers of prediction, often expressing anxiety without a discernable cause. Novels like And Then There Were None take this even further with the seaman on the train who predicts a calamity. Ghosts never physically manifest, but when characters on the brink of sanity speak to the air or think they see an earlier victim, Christie leaves it to the reader to decide how seriously they should be taken. These moments, especially the gradual building of suspense before a murder, are among my favorite in her novels. It’s a particular treat to have both a painfully lengthy buildup and characters like Iris Marle, Rosemary’s nervy sister, who fall to pieces almost as soon as murder is suggested. Elements like these date the book, certainly, but the earnestness with which they’re presented is bound to overcome all but the most cynical.
For many mystery fans, though, the thing they’re most keen to know about a novel is ‘Can I solve it?’ In other words, is the mystery logical and is the author clever enough to seed clues throughout which are neither overly obscure nor obvious? Yes. I’m proud to say that I solved the mystery myself before the novel ended, but my solution was sufficiently questionable that I wasn’t annoyed the detectives didn’t arrive at the same conclusion at the same time. One minor point which would spoil the mystery annoyed me, so I’ll leave it in a note at the bottom.* Aside from this, though, Sparkling Cyanide is a joy both to read and to solve, easily among Christie’s best fiction.
* The mystery hinges on how cyanide was added to George Barton’s glass. It’s silly that the detectives don’t think about the possibility that someone might’ve switched glasses with Barton until the final dozen or so pages. Not only do they fail to mention this early on, but the reason this is possible – all their glasses look exactly the same – isn’t even hinted. Modifying a line to say something like ‘The waiter filled their identical glasses with champagne,’ would certainly not have gone amiss.