Taking place about four years after the action depicted in DEATH AND THE SPANISH LADY, Carolyn Morwood’s second Eleanor Jones novel is set in Melbourne during the rather intense late spring of 1923. The police have gone on strike over their poor pay and conditions and while authorities struggle to co-opt enough ‘special constables’ from the ranks of returned soldiers there is an unusual amount of violence in the city’s streets. Against this backdrop Edward Bain, reporter for The Argus newspaper, is found dead in his office. Eleanor Jones has returned to her pre-war job and also works at the paper now but retains enough knowledge from her time as a nurse during and immediately after the war to know that Edward’s death is unnatural; she suspects cyanide poisoning.
At first Eleanor is more mildly curious than intensely interested in the investigation into Bain’s death. She is more troubled by personal matters, particularly the state of her brother Andrew’s health. They are both living in their parent’s Melbourne house while their parents are travelling abroad and Andrew is still suffering the effects of the shell shock he returned from the battlefield with. However when the police start to suspect a woman Andrew has become friendly with Eleanor is prompted to become more closely involved with the investigation. She’s not sure her brother can cope with another tragedy in his life.
The characters here are all well drawn; they’ve some foibles and some secrets they want to keep and there’s silly behaviour they continue to engage in even when it doesn’t really make sense. Just like real people right? Eleanor is happy enough with her work as a film reviewer for the paper but her personal life remains problematic: the man she is interested in (despite her best efforts to ignore the attraction) is married to someone else. However she doesn’t mope or dwell on this unfortunate circumstance, and is far more worried for her surviving brother (the other died during the war). The depiction of her not knowing how to help him is very realistic, as is his portrayal as a man struggling to deal with all he saw and experienced during the war.
The story is a first-rate, traditional whodunnit. There are plenty of plausible suspects whose elimination follows a suitably twisted path, with the involvement of Eleanor (and friends) feeling as credible as it’s possible for amateur sleuths to do. And there are some really interesting background elements here including a glimpse into the running of a newspaper and the inclusion of a psychic character with a difference. This is all topped off with an excellent sense of time and place: even though it’s 90 years ago the depiction of a city which wouldn’t dream of letting a little thing like mass rioting get in the way of running the Melbourne Cup is spot-on.
I’m really glad I was able to get my hands on a copy of CYANIDE AND POPPIES (which was no mean feat) and can recommend it to fans of historical crime fiction. It really does have everything you could look for from this genre.
I don’t normally add ‘buy here’ links but as I found it nearly impossible to find a copy of this book only a couple of months after its publication late last year (the library and two local bookstores all told me it was out of print and unavailable) I figure it’s worth letting you know you can buy it in physical format from Booktopia and it’s now available from you-know-where in eBook format
This is the 11th book I’ve read for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge
Publisher: Pulp Fiction Press 
Length: 305 pages