Archive for August, 2008

Sparkling Cyanide (1945) – Agatha Christie

Posted in Agatha Christie, Classic Mystery Reviews, Mysteries with tags , , on August 26, 2008 by cshmurak

Of the Golden Age grand dames, Agatha Christie has always been my least favorite. Though her plots are ingenious, I’ve often felt that Christie’s characters were two-dimensional stereotypes, chessmen to be moved around as the plot twists dictated. Her detective Poirot has frequently irritated me too, with his smug hints as to how much more he knows than I do. (I enjoy David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot nonetheless.)
But I was really drawn into Sparkling Cyanide (also published as Remembered Death), the story of the murder of Rosemary Barton and the memories of each of the people present at her death, and I found it difficult to put down. I ended up really liking the characters of Iris and Sandra, and was taken by surprise by more than one of the plot twists.
The parallel structure of all the different characters’ narratives was nicely done. And as the detective, Colonel Race was a pleasant low-key alternative to Poirot. Though the final explanation of how the murder was accomplished was far-fetched and the actual modus operandi not clearly explained, the identity of the villain was convincing. I suspected him/her all along!
Christie’s books have sold billions of copies; for many, hers is a brand name synonymous with mystery. Published near the end of the second World War, Sparkling Cyanide has no allusions to the war or the deprivations it caused the British people, and was undoubtedly a welcome escape for the readers of that time. It still works that way for me.


To Love and Be Wise (1950) – Josephine Tey

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Josephine Tey, Mysteries with tags , , on August 16, 2008 by cshmurak

There are some mysteries that are actually more enjoyable upon rereading. To Love and Be Wise is one of those books. Once the reader knows the solution to the mystery, it’s a treat to go back and look for the clues that Tey provides. They’re all there, seeming to call out to the reader, “If only you had paid attention, it would have been so easy!”

Tey’s detective, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is called in find out what has become of a young American photographer, Leslie Searle, who disappeared while on a boat trip with a British radio commentator, Walter Whitmore. Has Whitmore killed Searle and disposed of his body in the river? Or did Searle simply walk away one night, leaving Whitmore behind to be blamed for his death? All that Grant knows for sure is that they were seen quarreling and that Searle has spent a lot of time recently with Whitmore’s fiancée. Perhaps someone else has killed the enigmatic American? There are certainly many possible suspects in the little artist colony of Salcott St. Mary.

One of the joys of most of Tey’s writing is her sense of humor — not the laugh-out-loud kind, but rather the gentle wit that makes the reader chuckle with recognition. Her description of Salcott St. Mary’s evolution from sleepy little village to “occupied territory” as the writers and actors from London moved in, for example, reminded me of the fate of several Connecticut towns I know. And when the very successful author Lavinia Fitch, dictating her umpteenth romance novel, discovers that she has had her heroine wear high heels to play tennis, I recalled some of the authorial blunders I’ve seen in books, and even some I’ve made myself. Lavinia’s reaction to her own heroine (“Who cares what the silly moron does!”) is perfect.

This book was published the year before The Daughter of Time and includes some of the same characters; both Grant’s sidekick Williams and the glamorous Marta Hallard make important contributions to the solution of the mystery. Daughter of Time fans will also be amused to see that the authors whose books sit unread on Grant’s bedside table in Daughter of Time appear as characters in To Love and Be Wise.

The wonderful twist at the end of the story is just one more reason to treasure this book. One of the members of my mystery readers group called To Love and Be Wise “elegant.” It is: there is elegance in its construction and elegance in the writing.