Sunday, August 7, 2011

Remembered Death/Sparkling Cyanide

I'm not sure how many times I've read Sparkling Cyanide since the mid-80s.  My copy was in storage for about a decade, but there were years where I read it more than once so this is about the 15th re-read.  The cover (yellow, with "Agatha Christie" in large blue letters and "Remembered Death" in slightly smaller reddish-brown print, above a small picture of a man and two women in evening dress superimposed on a skull) began to fall off during this reading and is now held on with packing tape, and the cover price is $2.95 - these, as well as the yellowing pages, are a testament to years of comfort reading.

Christie really is comfort reading.  When I take one of the dozen or so I've read multiple times off the shelf, I know I'll get a well-plotted mystery without too much gore, usually populated by attractive, wealthy, and entertaining characters.  They're clever, but not too taxing - the perfect antidote to a stressful week.

Sparkling Cyanide is one of Christie's "murder in retrospect" novels, with a present-day murder added to spark the plot.  Beautiful, vain, Rosemary Barton apparently committed suicide at her birthday dinner held in an expensive London restaurant.   A year later, her husband George holds a dinner at the same restaurant with the same guests - Rosemary's sister Iris who inherited her sister's fortune; Rosemary's two lovers, the mysterious Anthony Browne and rising politician Stephen Farraday, Farraday's wife Sandra; and George's secretary Ruth Lessing.  As he's about to announce that Rosemary was murdered, he dies, as his wife did, by drinking champagne laced with cyanide.  Five suspects with five strong motives - and yet none of them could have killed either Barton, let alone both.  It's a typical Christie plot, solved in 190 pages with just enough coincidence to be believable.  

Dame Agatha populated the story with beautiful, wealthy people untouched by the Depression and WWII, dancing in posh frocks and dinner jackets - miles away both physically and emotionally from the Underground station where she undoubtedly worked on the manuscript during the London Blitz.  Her 1943 audience read Sparkling Cyanide as a relief from the horrors of the day, but it also works as a teenager's transition into adult literature and a bored project attorney's mental escape from the tedium of her job.  It's not a taxing read, but with scattered references to fashion, history, and Shakespeare, also not quite as shallow as it may appear.  Sparkling Cyanide is an old friend, and I'm already looking forward to the next time we meet.

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