Champagne Kisses, Cyanide Dreams, by Ralph Graves
Reviewed by Martin Kich
[This review was originally published in The Mystery Review.]
Champagne Kisses, Cyanide Dreams is set on Martha’s Vineyard, and it is obvious from the outset that Graves knows the island intimately. He provides us with a vivid sense of its geography, fascinating snatches of its history and folklore, and insightful commentary on its recent, Clinton-driven transformation into a summer retreat increasingly crowded with celebrities and e-tycoons, rather than one exclusively for blue-bloods.
It is equally obvious that Graves is a "pro." His prose has a seemingly effortless polish, moving the reader along quickly from one neatly articulated observation to the next like a sailing yacht slicing through a great deal of water without any shift or interruption in the breeze. I was surprised to notice that I was already well past page 50, and only then did I begin to appreciate consciously how well Graves writes. I was reminded of how much I have enjoyed Irwin Shaw’s late novels, Acceptable Losses and Bread upon the Waters. Like Shaw, Graves has an obvious confidence in his ability to match perception and phrase, an easy-going absence of pretense and affectation, and a practiced faith in the quiet miracles that occur when the story finds its rhythm in a certain telling.
Although Graves’s novel is not as substantive as the Shaw novels, it does seem finally a better novel than a mystery. The story begins at one of the A-list dinners hosted by a longtime island resident and well-known author, Mildred Silk. She is a kind of cross between Jackie Collins and Mary McCarthy–bitchiness squared, if you will, or a literary voice with an acute interest in celebrity Roman a Clef. The occasion is the publication of her latest book, a memoir that spares no one, and all of her guests, except the narrator who is a "very now and then" writer and a last-minute fill-in–are celebrities whom she has skewered in the book. One of them slips cyanide into her drink, and over the course of the investigation of her murder several of her guests are also murdered.
With the assistance of a former police detective, the narrator does most of the investigating–or at least most of what the reader gets to see. The problem is that the crime is really not all that complex and the narrator is finally more a collection of attitudes and mannerisms than he is a fully realized character. (He’s the sort of film character that the middle-aged Frank Sinatra specialized in–no steady employment, no prospects for a more meaningful existence, a drinking habit, and yet the luck to charm and bed any woman who crosses his path.) I didn’t care quite enough about the crime or the detective to be truly engaged by the mystery. In short, there is quite enough real suspense, and if the story were set in a less interesting location or involved ordinary folk rather than celebrities, its thin elements would be more apparent. The ending is a real surprise: it might be a wonderful play off one of the novel’s ironic refrains or it might be a genuine revelation. But, for this ambiguity to work, the reader would have to care enough to reread the novel looking for evidence that the ending might be a genuine revelation. I was very much tempted but didn’t.