I read Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady last year (and Gary the vampire and his librarian friend Lissa reviewed it), being a sucker for books set in my hometown, especially historical crime novels. That book was set in 1919, just after the Great War and during the devastating period of the Spanish flu epidemic. This story, set five years later, occurs on the eve of the police strike of 1923, which saw rioting in the Melbourne’s main streets.
The maxim that you should start in the midst of the action is taken to heart in Cyanide and Poppies, with the heroine, former nurse Eleanor Jones, kneeling by the body of a dead man in the offices of The Argus newspaper, where she is now a journalist, while waiting for the police to arrive. It’s perhaps a mite too abrupt as a beginning, but it certainly throws the reader into the midst of the business, both with Edward Bain’s murder and the difficulties of a police investigation while a strike is in place.
It also catches us up with Eleanor very quickly, including her change of profession and the ways in which her experiences in the war still haunt her. Her shell-shocked brother Andrew is still struggling with the return to life and Eleanor herself is still determined to deny and kill off her feelings for her unfortunately married friend Nicholas.
Much of the plot unfolds in a strangely muted fashion, reflecting Eleanor’s (and Andrew’s) own disconnectedness from things. The rest of the world intrudes on them, of course – sometimes in immediate and violent ways – but there is a sense of them both viewing the event around them at arm’s length.
But the mystery gathers momentum, including Andrew’s relationship with the vivacious but scandalous medium, Nadine Carrides, and Eleanor’s concerns and doubts about Carrides as well as her colleagues at The Argus. As it does so, there is a sense that the siblings’ lives are also gaining in momentum and purpose, and light begins to break on both the crime and their own relationships and engagement with their post-war world.
The book is elegantly written, with well-crafted characters and a wonderful capacity to evoke the Melbourne of the era. It’s always a pleasure to recognise parts of my town in a book, and even moreso to get a feel for those places in other times and atmospheres.
Cyanide and Poppies has a slow build to a satisfying finale that cracks open light and air on lives as well as mysteries, and that’s a pretty fine thing.
- Get Cyanide and Poppies in paperback
- Get Cyanide and Poppies for Kindle and Book.ish
- Read Gary and Lissa’s review of Death and the Spanish Lady
- Visit Carolyn Morwood’s website.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.