Detective fiction – Sparkling Cyanide (Remembered Death)

I have mixed thoughts on Sparkling Cyanide. Rosemary Barton, a spoiled and beautiful heiress, was fatally poisoned at her own birthday party. For want of conclusive evidence suggesting otherwise, the case was closed as “suicide”. However, less than a year after Rosemary’s death, her husband, George Barton, receives anonymous letters indicating that Rosemary was a victim of murder. George takes it upon himself to re-investigate the circumstances of Rosemary’s alleged suicide. The witnesses of Rosemary’s death, each a potential murderer in the reader’s eyes, take turns to contemplate their opinions of, and relationships with, the late Rosemary.

These characters’ monologues make the strongest case for Sparkling Cyanide; they are by turns entertaining and sobering, and each has an intriguing mix of detective reasoning and human psychology. Neither a Hercule Poirot nor a Miss Marple mystery, the detective of this story is Colonel Johnnie Race, introduced mid-book as one who is “not good at small talk and might indeed have posed as the model of a strong silent man so beloved by an earlier generation of novelists.” Race is very likeable, calm and ineffable like Christie’s detectives are, with a bit of a paranoid, “Alastor Mad-Eye Moody” (JK Rowling’s Harry Potter) reputation. 

Alongside the murder mystery is a dexterous narration of love in its various forms. Marriage and (in)fidelity are recurrents motive for each suspect and their personal lives are well depicted without overshadowing the main plot. Of George brooding over Rosemary’s extra marital affair, Christie writes :

“He’d known quick enough, sensed the difference in her. The rising excitement, the added beauty, the whole glowing radiance.”

A foil to the frivolous and selfish Rosemary is Alexandra Farraday, intelligent but awkward, outwardly reserved but inwardly passionate.

“From the day of their marriage she had realized that he did not love her in the same way as she loved him…That power of loving was her own unhappy heritage. To care with a desperation, an intensity that was, she knew, unusual among women! She would have died for him willingly; she was ready to lie for him, scheme with him, suffer for him! Instead she accepted with pride and reserve the place he wanted her to fill. He wanted her co-operation, her sympathy, her active and intellectual help. He wanted of her, not her heart, but her brains, and those material advantages with birth had given her. One thing she would never do, embarrass him by the expression of a devotion to which he could make no adequate return…(even after knowing of his affair), never for one minute did Sandra consider leaving him. The idea never even came to her. She was his, body and soul, to take or discard. He was her life, her existence. Love burned in her with a medieval force.”

Thumbs up also for Christie’s moments of dry humour, which avoid the trap of exasperating readers. In portraying a constantly distracted, extremely talkative aunt who has “stiffened into a pronouced spinsterhood”, Christie explains her convulated and confusing thoughts : “Aunt Lucilla’s reasoning was always crystal clear to herself.”

Since the novel is about romantic love, I also like the touch of closure the two youngest protagonists, Anthony and Iris, bring when they fall for each other and discuss their marriage at the end of the book :

“All that (murder) for money! […] Anthony – I don’t think I like my money very much. ” 

“All right, sweet – we’ll do something noble with it if you like. I’ve got enough money to live on – and to keep a wife in reasonable comfort. We’ll give it all away if you like – endow homes for children, or provide free tobaccol for old men, or – how about a campaign for serving better coffee all over England?”

“I shall keep a little,” said Iris. “So that if I ever wanted to, I could be grand and walk out and leave you.”

“I don’t think, Iris, that that is the right spirit to enter upon married life.”

Agatha Christie captures a memorable cast of narrators and suspects, but the resolution fails to impress. The climax of the book, if well dramatized, is unsurprising. The explanation of the murder itself is thoroughly hurried through, the motive is thin and the murderer’s modus-operandi not ingenious enough after the suspense of the novel. For someone who was stumped by the possibilities and eager for the murderer to be revealed, I was quite disappointed. Looking back, although Sparkling Cyanide seems like one of those books which have been “written into a corner”, it still is a very worthwhile read.


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