Source: Review Copy (Urbane Publications)
Earlier in the year I reviewed (and warmly recommended) the second novel in Fraser-Sampson’s Hampstead Murder series, Miss Christie Regrets (2017) and having now read the latest in the series, A Whiff of Cyanide, I can again give another big thumbs up. Reality and fiction (well mystery fiction to be exact) seem to merge in this latest work, when a poisoner strikes at a crime writers convention in Hampstead, leaving Ann Durham, the Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association decidedly dead – from cyanide no less. This is a mystery where it is not easy to say with any certainty whether the death is definitely murder or suicide, as the evidence for quite a while fits both options. Durham unsurprisingly is not very popular, with her family, nor her crime writing colleagues; some of whom who were keen to oust her from her dictator-like role in the CWA. There is also a secret in her past which is uncovered early on and adds further motives for her death. Whilst the investigation into her death is going on, we also see behind the scenes into the lives of the investigating officers and their relationships, which although can often bring them heartache and difficulty, are written with originality, avoiding overused tropes. In particular one police team member gets into trouble after a poor judgement call, which leads to unpleasant consequences. We also have our golden-age-detective- fiction-like amateur sleuth, Peter Collins, (one of DS Karen Willis’ boyfriends), on hand to offer timely and crucial support, as well eye witness testimony, having been in close vicinity to Ann when she died. A particularly interesting character for all us fans of Agatha Christie is Miss Marple – or rather an actress who plays her on television, but who is so absorbed in her role that she only answers to that name and can be frequently seen knitting. It is also her who ominously says there will be another murder… ‘After all, if one is living a real life situation which has all the hallmarks of a detective story then is it really unreasonable to expect real life to observe the conventions of the detective story?’
There are lots of reasons to give this story a big thumbs up, as I said above. A big reason, particularly relevant to all us golden age detective fiction fans, is that the narrative style itself often embodies or mirrors this earlier style, such as in the opening paragraphs which move from broadly describing the scene i.e. the area of Hampstead, to introducing us to one particular home and dinner party – a structuring device which does come up a lot in many golden age novels. As well as this, like with the books earlier in the series, there are many well placed and chosen metafictional references to golden age detective fiction. A particularly apt reference to the plot, is to Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide (1945), though of course not quite in the way you imagine. Equally the choice of setting, a writers convention, sets up a ‘closed community’ where ‘things can get blown out of all proportion,’ between members who store up age old jealousies and resentments. Fraser-Sampson recreates this settings with a great deal of verisimilitude, poking gentle fun at writers and the conventions they go to. I would also say that middle class London is dealt with in a rather tongue in cheek manner as well. However all the humour is done with a great deal of affection so works very effectively.
Readers of this book don’t have to choose between getting either strong characterisation or a complex but gripping mystery puzzle, as this story gives you both. Peter Collins is still my favourite character, who is very endearing and easy to warm to, especially due to his bumbling nature. The actress who takes her Miss Marple role a little too seriously, although a bit surreal to begin with, is a character you also quickly warm to and feel comfortable and familiar with. It was a good decision, in my opinion, to restrict her role in the plot, as I think too much exposure to her would have unbalanced the plot. We get just the right dose of her. I did pick out the culprit early on, due to my reader instinct as one of my blog readers put it recently, but due to the complexity of the case and the strong range of suspects, including the victim herself, I could not be sure until the end if I was right. Of course I blithely missed many of the clues placed throughout the story. However this does mean that whilst the solution is quite clever and sneaky, it is not underhand. The right questions are raised by the characters throughout the investigation and the reader has a lot of information about the case to use in putting the solution together.
So all in all another strong and entertaining effort by Fraser-Sampson, providing not only an enthralling case to explore and characters you can invest in, but also giving the reader plenty of surprises along the way to keep them on their toes.