Sparkling Cyanide

THE BOOK  Fontana 1964 pp 189  

Another cover by Tom Adams – an excellent, clear image that deals with three key elements of the plot: the drink, the poison and where it was found.  The PAN cover also has its merits but has nothing like the presence of the Adams one.

This was the first Agatha Christie book that I read. It was bought by my elder brother at a second-hand bookshop for the equivalent of 5p in Brighton when I was 11.  We were soon looking for more examples, and with covers as distinctive as this one they were not hard to spot.


Rosemary Barton dies suddenly at a birthday dinner in her honour. One year later, her husband George, having received anonymous letters stating that Rosemary had been murdered, organises a re-union dinner, at the same restaurant, for the guests that had been present the previous time. The inevitable happens …

The story is divided into three parts. The first section is entitled Rosemary, and consists of the guests at the fateful dinner recalling her and their attitudes toward her; the second section (All Souls Night) describes the night of the remembrance dinner, and the third (Iris) the investigation that follows, led by Inspector Kemp and Colonel Race.

Sparkling Cyanide is an extended version of Yellow Iris, which had originally been written as a radio play in the 1920s.       


The characters do not leap off the page but there are some very descriptive names for the three main females:

Rosemary, whose ghost dominates most of the story: the herb rosemary is a symbol of remembrance;
Iris is the flower of wisdom and hope; Iris Marle is the one dinner-guest who ends the book with the promise of happier times to come;
Ruth is a name that means ‘friend’, but her surname is Lessing, giving a very unsubtle clue as to her true nature.

In the original story, Hercule Poirot investigated the crime. He is replaced here by Colonel Race, who first appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit in 1924, and had appeared with Poirot in Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile. Race is usually to be found in ‘some part of the Empire where trouble is brewing’, but in this book he is a friend of Barton’s who counsels him against trying to re-create the dinner.

Inspector Kemp is a protegé of Superintendent Battle, another of the Cards on the Table detective super-group. 


Each of the three sections opens with a quotation.


What can I do to drive away remembrances from my eyes?
John Keats, Lines to Fanny  

All Souls Night:

            There’s Rosemary – that’s for remembrance
            Ophelia in Hamlet


            For I had thought the dead had peace
            But it is not so
            Tennyson, Maud

There is a nice little exchange between Kemp and Race (Agatha Christie knew and loved her cricket, and used to arrange games on her lawn at Greenway; in her will she specified funds for overseas tours by young cricketers):

‘Do you think she is the type to slip incriminating evidence into a girl’s handbag? A perfectly innocent girl, mind, who has never harmed her in any way? Is that in the Kidderminster tradition?’
Inspector Kemp squirmed uneasily in his seat and peered into his teacup. ‘Women don’t play cricket,’ he said. ‘If that’s what you mean.’
‘Actually, a lot of them do,’ said Race smiling.


Having been totally mesmerised by this book at the age of eleven, I now consider it a very average swigatha on re-reading it. The identity of the murderer is almost spelt out in Chapter Two, which is, however, a convincing portrayal of hatred (an unusual motive for murder for Agatha Christie). There really is not much else to say. It’s ok. 


This was the last of four outings for Colonel Race. Yellow Iris was finally published as a short story in 1991 in the collection Problem at Pollensa Bay. On a personal level, this book created an appetite for more of the same that persists to this day.


There have been two TV films – one starring Anthony Andrews from 1983 and one featuring Pauline Collins from 2003. The first was co-scripted by Sue Grafton, now a very famous crime writer, and is very much of the time that it was made (rather than written): it feels a bit like Columbo meets Dynasty. The second transplants the characters and action to a football club. Avoid.

Yellow Iris was included in the ITV Poirot series.