Book Review: A Trace of Poison by Colleen Cambridge
By Janet WebbNovember 29, 2022
A Taste of Poison brings to mind the old adage, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Agatha Christie has gathered a miscellany of mystery writers to her country estate, all Detection Club members. It’s the crème de la crème of Golden Age crime fiction: Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and Anthony Berkeley. Christie’s right-hand woman, head of household Phyllida Bright, enters into the festivities with gusto. The mystery writers will be featured guests at a Murder Fête in nearby Listleigh, “organized to benefit a local orphanage.” The authors “will congregate for charitable events, including a writing contest for aspiring authors.” It’s not a shabby prize: “the winner gets an international publishing contract.” The extravaganza is organized by Phyllida, who shamelessly employs the excuse of working at the fête to explain her absences from Mallowan Hall. To be fair, although she slips away frequently, Agatha Christie and her guests receive the usual splendid service from the staff—Phyllida trains her team well.
During the meet-and-greet cocktail party, the hubbub of excited conversation is interrupted by Father Tooley’s collapse on the ground. He emits a “strangled scream of pain” before lying “horribly, horrifically still.” Surprisingly, the guests begin to clap. Mrs. Rollingbroke—the wife of the most unpleasant would-be-published mystery writer in Listleigh—speaks for almost all when she cries out, “Absolutely screaming!”
“What a perfect way to end the cocktail party—with a game of murder for all of us to solve! I cannot wait to tell Rolly! He should be here any moment. Now, shall we begin to gather clues? Obviously, it was poison.”
“I’m not quite certain . . .” Agatha said hesitantly, “Max . . .”
Not so fast Mrs. Rollingbroke. Agatha asks for assistance from Max Mallowan, her archaeologist second husband. Dr. Bhatt leans over the priest’s body and “silently closed Father Tooley’s eyes.” The crowd of established and would-be murder writers speculates feverishly. Could it be strychnine, arsenic, digitalis, hemlock, belladonna, or cyanide? Their imaginations reach fever pitch. Phyllida Bright likes to imagine outcomes too but she has the luxury of an outsider’s knowledge of the village and its inhabitants. Her well-honed ability to observe is a valuable tool in her arsenal.
Phyllida quickly moves into investigator mode, much like she did in Murder at Mallowan Hall. Before the local constabulary can take charge, Phyllida picks up a fragment of broken glass: the glass that shattered when Father Tooley collapsed.
Phyllida used her handkerchief when she picked up the fragment. When she brought it to her nose and sniffed its contents, she smelled rye whiskey, something heavy and cloying, and the definite scent of tobacco.
Phyllida rose abruptly and sought another face in the crowd. As if reading her mind, Agatha met her gaze, then her attention dropped to the handkerchief-wrapped cup Phyllida was holding.
Sometimes Phyllida takes imagining too far, like when she shamelessly eavesdrops on folks who are “at the end of their rope.” She also spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about fictional star detectives. How can a mystery writer abruptly end the life of a favorite character, a thought that pops into her head when she overhears an unpleasant conversation—is it a man speaking? —at St. Wendreda’s Catholic Church.
She hoped it wasn’t Dorothy Sayers speaking about her detective character Peter Wimsey. Not that Lord Peter could hold a candle to Poirot, but Phyllida certainly enjoyed his detective work—and having recently solved a real-life murder herself, she highly approved of the intrepid Harriet Vane as his partner (although she was no comparison to Agatha’s spunky Tuppence Beresford).
With A Trace of Poison, readers have two for the price of one—a savvy investigator and her friend and mentor, the doyenne of crime fiction: “Readers may be surprised that Phyllida, not Agatha Christie, is the in-house investigator, but Christie is a hard-working author who doesn’t particularly want to be disturbed. Admittedly, over private cups of tea, she and Phyllida discuss the progress of the case.” The local constabulary finds Phyllida somewhat annoying because her advice is pertinent and spot-on, and she often “primes the pump” before the police arrive. You’d think they would be used to her by now.
Colleen Cambridge plays fair with her readers. Golden Age detective fiction is sometimes referred to as “puzzle-based crime fiction—the kind you can theoretically solve yourself” and readers are encouraged to suss out the murderer before Phyllida beats them to the punch.