Her Poison Pen

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best selling novelist of all time. Over the years, I’ve done my part in helping to make her so.

Christie’s preferred fictional murder weapon was poison. Of the more than 300 people who died in her stories, at least 100 ate or drank something they did not live to regret. In a fun segment on last week’s Science Friday, Ira Plato interviewed Kathryn Harkup, chemist and author of A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie.

From 1914 to 1918, Agatha Christie volunteered as a nurse at a local hospital, and worked in the dispensary when it opened. Back then, all pharmaceuticals were mixed on site, and none of our modern restrictions on drugs were in place, so of necessity, Christie acquired a detailed knowledge of theoretical and applied chemistry in order to pass her apothecary’s assistant exam in 1917. She learned what to do, and more importantly for her future literary career, what not to do with medicines. She was tutored by a local pharmacist who carried a lump of curare in his pocket, “because it made him feel powerful.”

Christie started writing in her twenties and did not meet with instant success. Kathryn Harkup gives an example of the plot complexity of her first published novel, A Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.

Spoiler Alert

The elderly victim is killed by with a lethal dose of strychnine, which at that time, was given, in measured doses, to the elderly as a tonic.  The killer, however, added bromide, a popular sleeping powder, to the solution, which caused the strychnine to precipitate out as crystals at the bottom of the bottle. The final teaspoon would be lethal, and the killer could arrange an airtight alibi.

Harkup’s research revealed that Agatha Christie had studied the effect of combining these two drugs as a lesson in what not to do, in the course of her apothecary training.

If you have ever watched a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple movie, or purchased one of the two billion copies of Agatha Christie books that have been sold, you’ll want to check out the Science Friday interview!

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2 Responses to Her Poison Pen

  1. I played the old lady killed by a “bee sting” in Ten Little Indians in high school. I do love the mysteries of hers I have read. Thanks for the link. The book sounds pretty interesting as well.

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    • According to Wikipedia, Ten Little Indians, now published as And Then There Were None, was her best selling novel and the one she found hardest to write. I can instantly think of other classics, like Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. I’ve forgotten a lot of the titles. Kathryn Markup, herself British, said the Brits with their “stiff upper lip,” make ideal subjects for poison, and she gave the example of Death at the Vicarage. The vicar ingests a lethal dose of nicotine (a gram is plenty). He complains that his drink tastes funny but then dutifully drinks it down. I’m a bit like that at restaurants. Hmm – I’ll have to remember this when I consider returning something that isn’t quite right…

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