The follow up to Miss Christie Regrets (read my review HERE) and the third in the Hampstead Murders series, A Whiff of Cyanide is another great spin on a traditional whodunit, with enough modern touches to really bring the Golden Age into the twenty first century.
Opening with a dinner party in true Golden Age style, the novel moves on to a writer’s convention, the inspiration for which, I am convinced, must have been taken from author Guy Fraser- Sampson’s personal experience. The vivid, scathing portrayal of the characters and the quick witted dialogue must have a holding in real life, I am sure, and there is something in the smugness of many of the main suspects that is definitely drawn from a previous encounter.
The victim is the unlikeable Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association, which is hosting the convention. With her leadership in dispute, her former friends in revolt and her career on the wane, the character has a troubled time until her eventual death, shortly after she revealed that she carries a bottle of cyanide with her as a sort of deranged prop.
Her murder forms the core backdrop to this fascinating novel, along with a number of interesting and well-integrated sub-plots revolving around the complicated lives of the investigative team that Fraser- Sampson expertly entwines with the main story. Fleshed out, the investigative team are a real success here, and this is one of the main things I like about these novels; the author knows exactly when to take example from Golden Age Crime Fiction, and when to insert more modern touches. In this case, the private detective, sidekick (usually of military extraction) and tame policeman trio which usually forms the protagonists for a traditional novel of this style is overhauled in favour of the more realistic team of experts from various fields, allowing scope for genuine discussion on the case and making the novel feel much more believable (in any day and age I find it tough to imagine former soldiers so at a loss for something to do with their time that they have to follow arrogant, eccentric detectives around and do their dirty work for them).
For anyone seeking an updated Golden Age series, the Hampstead Murders is, to my mind, the best out there. Fraser- Sampson weaves a thrilling and complicated narrative with enough to twists and turns to make the Queen of Crime herself proud. The only criticism I have is that, unlike the first two novels, A Whiff of Cyanide is, at times, a little heavy handed with the symbolism. One of the suspects is a character who has changed her name, by Deed Poll, to Miss Marple. Although Fraser- Sampson wins points for the fact that, as the character is portrayed as an actor who previously played Miss Marple of TV, I did have a bit of a laugh trying to work out if this had any real life significance, and if so who it would be based upon, this seems a little like overkill to me and made the novel feel a little obvious.
However, looking beyond this, the novel is, overall, a triumph for modern detective fiction and I feel certain that A Whiff of Cyanide, alongside the two preceding novels in this masterful series, will end up as a classic novel in a few year’s time.