People accuse Agatha Christie of creating shallow characters all the time. Truth to tell, she often worked with character “types,” and one could find variations on the same rakish ex-soldier, hearty doctor, dry solicitor, club bore, self-serving vixen, dimwitted serving girl (usually named Gladys), dithery or incompetent mother, and so on, in many of her stories. Sometimes a character would stand out as a more multi-faceted creature among these types; often, all too often, that character would turn out to be the murderer, so I won’t mention the titles that come to mind.
In 1939, the author experimented with creating characters of greater depth in her seminal mystery, And Then There Were None. Afterwards, she didn’t wholeheartedly abandon her standard stock characters, (later novels like A Pocket Full of Rye and Dead Man’s Folly are full of them), but more and more she infused her writing with men and women (and the occasional child) of greater complexity. Sad Cypress (1940), which, in many ways, resembles a Mary Westmacott romance, contains a fine central mystery set against a gripping murder trial. Along the way, we get to know Elinor Carlisle, Mary Gerrard, and the small circle of people who make up the tragedy that unfolds at Hunterbury, and they are more finely rendered than the typical murder set. 1943’s Five Little Pigs is the novel fans of Christie’s characterization skills trot out whenever they want to counter the naysayers’ arguments. The emotional lives and psychologies of the seven people involved in Amyas’ Crale’s murder (including the victim and his wife, who are dead at the start), are as fascinating as the case itself. It is a tribute to Christie that she has no need to provide a surprise ending here. The author expertly doles out an equal share of suspicion among all her suspects until the revelation, when the killer turns out to be the only proper choice given the method of the crime and our understanding of who these people are.
This attention to character continues with Toward Zero and, to a lesser degree, The Moving Finger (one of my very favorite village mysteries, but one that admittedly contains its share of stock types). When we get to Sparkling Cyanide (a.k.a. Remembered Death) in 1945, which I am reviewing here as part of Rich’s Salute to 1945 on Past Offenses), the superficial resemblances to Pigs – a murder in the past, a small circle of suspects , a focus on the kind of people these were – put these two novels on a sort of par with each other. Oddly, this is underscored by a major difference between Cyanide and Pigs: namely, while the latter is an Hercule Poirot mystery, and the exploration into character develops during the sleuth’s interviews, as well as through written documents about the facts that each suspect has written, Cyanide tells its story a different way, through alternating points of view of each suspect. There is a detective in the form of the inimitable Colonel Race (from The Man in the Brown Suit, Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile, here making his final appearance in the canon), but he is almost a minor character and he is ably abetted by others who will have more to do than he with reaching the correct solution. No, we really find out about this case from the alternating viewpoints of the six people who dined at the Luxembourg one November evening to celebrate, five of whom had ample reason to kill Rosemary Barton, Like Amyas Crale in Pigs, our victim was a complex woman, beautiful and difficult, capable of great love for her sister Iris or her lover . . . or was that lovers? . . . and of great willfulness.
The suspects, too, are interesting people. George Barton is torn between feelings of love and fury for his wife. Ruth Lessing, George’s secretary, is, of course, in love with her boss, yet her motivations are more multi-faceted than that, as are the secrets that young roué Anthony Brown is hiding, or Iris Marle’s hero worship of her sister, or the portrait of the marriage between M.P. Steven Farraday and his wife, Sandra.
So far, so good. The set-up for the mystery itself is also intriguing, based on one of Christie’s finest short stories, 1937’s “Yellow Iris,” which ironically featured Poirot. Somebody poisoned Rosemary’s glass while the party was on the dance floor. A year later, George becomes obsessed with solving his wife’s murder and invites everyone back to the restaurant, ostensibly to celebrate Iris’ birthday and to put the past behind them with a toast. To nobody’s surprise but the party guests, history repeats itself, and murder once again rears its ugly head. Now our suspects are five – the same number as in Pigs – and Colonel Race leads the charge to discover the truth where George could not.
Just last week, the Puzzle Doctor, in his marvelous blog In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, ran a poll to find the best non-series Christie title. Wisely, he did not include And Then There Were None because, as he admits, “it would have won by a mile.” You can look at the results here, but for the purposes of this writing, I am here to inform you that the winner was . . . Sparkling Cyanide! Not Crooked House, not Toward Zero, but Cyanide.
Why does this bother me? I like the characters. I like the format of Christie opening up the minds of each major character for our perusal. And since one of these people must be the murderer, it allows Christie to play her usual tricks with wordplay, trapping us into reading the wrong message in what people say, think or do.
Unfortunately, while Five Little Pigs combines first-rate characterization with a first-rate mystery, and Crooked House lays out a fascinating family dynamic before springing a shocker of an ending on us, the mystery part of Sparkling Cyanide is, frankly, a mess. And of course, I can’t really tell you why it is a mess without giving the show away, so I will just say that the second murder’s whole conceit rests on an event so ludicrous that it boggles the mind and that, having spent a few hours pleasure getting to know the six people at the party, the final revelation is very much a mixed success because . . . ohhhhh, I won’t say it. You who agree with me know what I’m talking about, and you who love this tale – I’m pointing at you, Puzzle Doctor – are welcome to discuss below and/or privately.
That’s not to say that Sparkling Cyanide isn’t eminently readable, but I venture to warn those of you who tackle it for the first time to enjoy it for its sublime characterization and then brace yourself for a letdown at the end as far as the puzzle element is concerned.