A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015) by Kathryn Harkup

This is a book I have had my eye on for some time since it was released and I think Harkup has chosen a good topic, making me aware how often Christie uses poison in her novels and how accurately she uses them and fits the symptoms of her chosen poisons to her plots. Poison as her murder method of choice is seen in her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) (which was favourably reviewed by a pharmaceutical publication at the time) and continues into her later novels such as The Pale Horse (1961). The book, whilst generally introducing the topic, also hones in on Christie’s own pharmaceutical training, working at a dispensary in both WW1 and WW2. I was especially impressed that considering the number of hours Christie put in to her dispensary work during WW2, she still managed to complete 12 novels. A wide variety of poisons are utilised by Christie in her stories and in a number of novel ways and Harkup mentions how in 1967 Christie was considering how to poison someone by putting thalidomide in birthday cake icing. Though sadly this murder method never finished up in any of her works. Harkup looks at 14 poisons that Christie used in her books and in each chapter (devoted to one particular poison), she describes the poison, indicating how it affects the body, how it kills, how it can be detected and any antidotes. Harkup also looks at each poison’s place in history and culture, discussing real life cases where it was used. In addition each chapter focuses on one particular Christie novel where the poison is employed and how the poison worked within the story.

A is for Arsenic

Below are the poisons (and key novels) looked at and I have selected the ideas from each chapter that I found the most interesting:

[In light of feedback I am adding a spoiler warning. No killers are mentioned, but some info concerning the method of deaths is revealed. In most cases this should be fine as in the books the cause of death is quickly identified. However, if you have not read all of Christie’s later novels I would skip reading the section T is for.]

A is for Arsenic – Murder is Easy (1939)

  • Christie bumps off 8 people using arsenic in her books.
  • Alongside the Borgias, other real life cases include the Armstrong Case in 1921 and theMurder is Easy Maybrick Case in 1889.
  • Arsenic can help to reduce spots and skin blemishes, though personally I think I will stick to clearasil.
  • The Marsh test is used to detect arsenic and Christie along with a friend attempted to try out this test, resulting in her coffee machine blowing up.

B is for Belladonna – ‘The Cretan Bill’ in The Labours of Hercules (1947)

  • It is suggested that in 1977, Roland Roussel, in Creances, France, committed murder using atropine, based on a short story from Christie’s The Thirteen Problems (1932).

C is for Cyanide – Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

  • This poison is used in 10 novels and 4 short stories by Christie, resulting in 18 victims.Sparkling Cyanide
  • Even today in 95% of cyanide poisoning cases (murder or accidental), the case is fatal, due to how quickly the poison works.
  • Famous real life case: Murder of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin in 1916.

D is for Digitalis – Appointment with Death (1938)

  • In 1932 there was a serial killer in Belgium called Marie Alexandrine Becker, who used this poison to first of all bump off her husband, then her lover, before turning her attentions to the customers in her dress shop.

E is for Eserine – Crooked House (1949)

  • One of the rare occasions where Christie did not use the poison correctly in her book, Crooked Houseas neither the method nor amount would have killed the victim.
  • Eserine comes in the form of a bean and originates from West Africa where it was used in ordeal trials.

H is Hemlock – Five Little Pigs (1942)

  • Seems since the times of Socrates there have been no recorded cases of deliberate ingestion of Hemlock, though plenty of people who have accidently eaten it.

M is for Monkshood – 4:50 from Paddington (1957)

  • A real life case in 1881 parallels parts of 4:50 from Paddington, where a Doctor Henry 450 from PaddingtonLamson poisoned his wife’s relatives in order to relieve his financial difficulties.

N is for Nicotine – Three Act Tragedy (1934)

  • Rarely used as a poison in real life, though there was an extremely amateurish case in 1850 in Belgium, where the killers acted so conspicuously that their arrest was inevitable.

O is for Opium – Sad Cypress (1940)

  • 9 of Christie’s corpses have died through this poison and two of them occur in Sad Sad CypressCypress.
  • By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968) may have been influenced by a case in 1935 where Dorothea Waddington murdered patients in her care home for monetary gain.
  • Several cases of doctors who have turned killer involve this poison such as Doctor Shipman who murdered hundreds of patients over a twenty year period (only being convicted in 2000) and Dr Buchanan in 1892, though I feel sorry for the cat who had to undergo Buchanan’s specific murder method to demonstrate to the jury how it was done.

P is Phosphorus – Dumb Witness (1937)

  • Christie only used this poison once in her work.

R is for Ricin – ‘The House of Lurking Death’ in Partners in Crime (1929)

  • There were no recorded real life cases of Ricin poisoning when Christie was writing thisPartners in Crime story, so there are understandably some inaccuracies in her depiction of this poison.
  • Ricin was untraceable until the 1970s which was also the decade in which Georgi Markov was assassinated with this very poison.

S is for Strychnine – The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

  • Strychnine is used in 4 novels and 5 short stories by Christie, with a body count of 5.
  • This is the third most popularly used poison in real life murder cases.
  • 4 years after the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Jean-Pierre Vaquier murdered his lover’s husband and there are some similarities between the case and the novel.

T is for Thallium – The Pale Horse (1961)

  • This poison wasn’t really used as a murder weapon prior to the publication of The Pale Horse and the first recorded case occurred a matter of months after its’ publication. This was the Graham Young case, a boy who enjoyed trying out his poison experiments on his family and friends, which led to both his father, sister and best friend nearly dying and his step mother dying. After a spell in Broadmoor he continued his acts of poisoning at his work place, leading to more sickness and deaths. The medical professionals only pinpointed thallium was being used after Graham strongly hinted that was the case.
  • Ngaio Marsh in Final Curtain (1947) also makes use of this poison.
  • Thallium is only used in The Pale Horse within the Christie canon, but it does cause 10 people’s deaths.
  • The Pale Horse, saved someone’s life when a woman, living in South America, recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning in a young woman’s husband, based on having read the book.

V is for Veronal – Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

  • Harkup makes the point that using this drug rather dates some of Christie’s work, it now being out of fashion and use. But at the time it was used by people to aid sleep, despite being a dangerous and unpredictable barbiturate.
  • Harkup also suggests that the death of Billie Carleton in 1918 may have influenced theLord Edgware Dies novel, Lord Edgware dies, as she was an actress who is said to have died from her use of veronal.
  • Veronal or a version of, was used by John Armstrong in 1955 to end the lives of some of his children. Although, the police were only able to convict him through his wife’s testimony, despite having discovered how he was able to get a hold of the poison.

Overall Thoughts

On the whole I think Harkup is very good at explaining the science behind the poisons, neither boggling nor patronising the reader. Although readers who are not interested in science will still probably want to avoid this book, as after all this is not a literary analysis. I enjoyed the humorous asides she has with the reader, as they give a more personal touch to the book. Furthermore, at the end there is an index which tabulates the different murder methods Christie used in each of her novels and short stories, an invaluable resource. My only recommendation for an improvement would be that there should have been a concluding chapter to round off the book, as it did feel like the book finished abruptly. This is an interesting book on the works of Christie, from a more unusual angle and I think it has a lot to offer Christie fans.

Rating: 4/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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12 Responses to A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015) by Kathryn Harkup

  1. JJ says:

    Just out of interest, how spoilerific is this for the uninitiated to Christie? Like, I can’t help but feel that the Pale Horse element rather gives parts of that particular game away, so is it better to have read the novels before picking this up? I know, I know, who but a fan would necessarily read it, but someone with a passing interest in Christie’s books may indulge and then find something divulged that they would have been better not knowing…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Roger says:

    “This poison wasn’t really used as a murder weapon prior to the publication of [Christie’s book} and the first recorded case occurred a matter of months after its’ publication….
    The Pale Horse, saved someone’s life when a woman…recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning …based on having read the book.”

    Has anyone done a survey of “People killed vs. People saved” by reading Christie’s books?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha I have no idea, though it would be an interesting one to do. There is another case mentioned in the book where a nurse having read one of Christie’s books managed to identify what was wrong with a baby who was really ill and had the doctors puzzled.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Book of the Month: January 2016 | crossexaminingcrime

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