Tue 29 Jan 2013
AGATHA CHRISTIE – Remembered Death. Dodd Mead, hardcover, February 1945. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft, including Pocket 451, 1947 and Cardinal C-312, April 1958 (the copy at hand). First published in the UK as Sparkling Cyanide (Collins, hardcover, 1945).
So, how long’s it been since you read a Christie? For me, it’s been a while. A good long while, and much longer than it should have been. Several years at least. I read most of the Agatha Christie’s work when I was in my teens, along with all but one of the Ellery Queen’s – I was not going to go and spoil The French Powder Mystery by reading it. I was going to save it and read (and relish) it later. And later has come (but not gone, by golly) and I still haven’t read it. My oh my oh my.
But I read all of the Poirot’s and all of the Miss Marple’s, all of them that had been written while I was still in my teens, and if you were to give me one now, and ask me, Who did it? I couldn’t tell you, except for one, and it was one of Poirot’s.
But I never read this one. I don’t remember this one at all, and maybe it’s because M. Poirot is not in it, nor Miss Marple. It’s Colonel Race who’s in this one, the last of four of Christie’s mysteries he was in – the others being The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), Cards on the Table (1936) and Death on the Nile (1937), the latter two being primarily cases for Poirot. Race is only a friend of the family in this one, not the detective of record – that being Chief Inspector Kemp – but he is instrumental at least in part in bringing the culprit(s) to justice.
And quite a mystery it is that has to be solved. The young wife of an older man supposedly committed suicide one year before this story begins. By suicide, in a restaurant while celebrating her birthday. Depression caused by illness is the verdict, because there was no feasible way (apparently) that anyone could have gotten the cyanide into her champagne.
But the widower has been getting anonymous messages that hint that Rosemary was murdered, and indeed everyone who was at the table with her when she died could have had a motive. George Barton concocts a plan, the kind that exist only in mystery stories, one imagines, and that is to bring everyone back who attended the first party, and have another party at the same place, the same time, but a year later.
You have read Agatha Christie before yourself, haven’t you? Disaster happens. If this is a cozy, it’s a cozy with a sharp, wicked edge to it.
Nor is all what it seems, as I probably needn’t warn you, and as an “impossible crime,” which this very nearly is, it’s one that just might, maybe, work. And not too many readers are going to outwit Ms. Christie, and maybe that’s why, of all of the many, many practitioners of mysteries from the Golden Age, Christie is the only one whose books you will find on the shelves in Borders, Waldens or Barnes & Noble today.
And not only is Christie a master of deception, she has an exceeding observant eye when it comes to people, and she can take what she sees and convert it into words. (I notice that I’m using the present tense. I think that’s because I sense that as long as her books are alive, so is she.)
With just a bit of a dialogue of one of characters, she can match him perfectly to her description of him later. George Barton is talking to his wife’s younger sister on page 17, and a few lines later Iris thinks of him to herself as “kind, awkward, bumbling.” And he was. Exactly. A stereotype, perhaps, but even stereotypes are based on reality.
And what I understand now, at this late date in my mystery reading career, is that it’s Christie’s keen eye into character that makes her mysteries work, with all of the intricate machinations inherent thereto, and somehow I don’t think I realized that back when I was reading her books for the first time. Back then it was the cleverness of the plot, and that aspect only, not thinking, or caring, that it’s that way that people act and react that’s equally essential, if not – dare I say it? – more so.
[UPDATE] 01-29-13. A couple of things have happened since I wrote this review. You may choose which is the more significant. Both Borders and Waldens are out of business. And I have, at long last, read The French Powder Mystery. You may read my review here.