A Trace of Poison (A Phyllida Bright Mystery)

Written by Colleen Cambridge
Review by Paula Martinac

A Trace of Poison is second in a historical mystery series featuring Phyllida Bright, fictional housekeeper at Mallowan Hall in Devon, England—estate of the renowned Agatha Christie.

Circa 1930, the village of Listleigh is hosting a Murder Fête, a charitable event for wannabe mystery writers. Amateur authors pay a fee to rub shoulders with the distinguished Detection Club, a real-life group of crime writers that included Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers. The famous authors also serve as judges for a detective story contest, whose prize is a publishing contract and representation by a literary agent. Phyllida ensures the event runs like clockwork, but things go awry when the local pastor chosen to announce the winner keels over from a poisoned cocktail. Was his drink intended for the much-reviled Alastair Whittlesby, the favorite to win the prize? As the body count mounts, local constables are stymied, but Phyllida pieces together the clues to reveal the murderer—and a clever twist of a “whydunit.”

The premise of the novel is delicious fun—would a writer kill to be published?—and the locked-room mystery is a homage to the queen of crime herself. Observant, no-nonsense Phyllida makes an ideal amateur sleuth, given her proximity to Christie. Assisting her is the Mallowan Hall chauffeur, with whom she has a combative but somewhat flirtatious relationship. An extensive cast of characters takes time to sort out, but each suspect enjoys distinctive quirks and a list of their names and positions comes in handy. At the end, there’s even a recipe for the cocktail that propels the plot. Although it’s unnecessary to read the first book in the series to understand the story, readers may want to check out Murder at Mallowan Hall, a finalist for an Agatha Award.