Agatha Christie’s first novel is almost 100 years old. Poison played a role in it, and in her later works too
The 1920s were the right time for quiet murders in the English countryside. These were the Inter-war years. New chemicals and their compounds were being discovered in laboratories, to be used as weapons, and were making their way as powders or tablets to pharmacists’ shelves; the gentry had to make do with stretched fortunes; people were on edge; and if a scandal broke, the family had better keep the sound low. Agatha Christie wrote her first novel, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ – published almost 100 years ago – with a detective, Hercule Poirot, at ease in upper-middle-class homes, and a murder weapon, poison, which fit her purposes like a glove.
Christie had worked as a nurse in a Red Cross hospital during World War I. In her autobiography, she writes of her slack periods when all she did was “sit around in a room surrounded by poisons”. She wrote 85 books; 66 of them detective novels, of which 41 included poisons. Her books mention more than 90 drugs easily available on pharmacists’ shelves that “could be misused readily in case one was so inclined”, says writer Michael C Gerald in an essay, ‘Agatha Christie’s Helpful and Harmful health
And that was, indeed, Christie’s position. Poison is in everything – it all depends on the dosage – and it is to be found in every household closet. Anyone is capable of using it to murder other people. In ‘Sparkling Cyanide’, a Mr and Mrs Barton die of potassium cyanide poisoning. Mr Barton’s secretary – she wants him and his money but failing which, kills him too – administers cyanide, whose real use in the house is to kill wasps, to their glass of champagne. Every murderess may have been a good girl once, but the moral of the story – stay clear of a girl with a grouse armed with cyanide salts.
However, poison is not just the lady’s weapon. From greedy heirs and adventurers to men desperately in love, all have found them handy to make quick work of their opponents. Sir Charles, in the ‘Three Act Tragedy’, a man of means, gets rid of his house guests, a parson and a doctor, by lacing their cocktails with lethal, because pure, nicotine. He feared they may ‘out’ his secret past, and spoil his current love affair.
The science behind the poisoning and the after-effects, says author Kathryn Harkup in her book, ‘A is for Arsenic’, has been mostly error-free. And it is because Christie understands how poisons work (and the lay reader doesn’t) that she is able to make us look for the cause of death and motive for the murder, and hence, the murderer, in the wrong direction.
In ‘The Crooked House’, for instance, the police are puzzled, when the poison, eserine, that kills Aristide Leonides, a man with several heirs, is discovered; eserine was in his eye drops. And so the needle of suspicion, does not, at first, point towards Leonides’ odd little grandchild, Josephine, because the insulin injection – she has replaced it with eserine – is administered by his second wife, Brenda, thought to be a gold-digger.
Christie also has some fun with her poisons and killer chemical compounds, possibly tired of keeping to the straight and the narrow in most of her books. The ‘poisons’ Calmo, in ‘The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side’, and ‘Serenite in A Caribbean Mystery’, are Christie inventions.
Master of detective fiction Raymond Chandler, surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, was not impressed with Christie’s books. He felt that she placed her murders in the same settings and with similar protagonists – a garden party at a country squire’s home or a weekend gathering at a seaside resort, so that strangers or an ill-assorted group of people could meet; leading up to a dead body, and therefore, the need for a detective to walk in – rather than everyday life. In contrast, he upheld his fellow writer of crime thrillers, Dashiell Hammett, who, he said “gave murder back” to the people who commit it with the appropriate means at hand, “not tropical fish or begonia growing under the library window”. But this is possibly a turf war.