This month the Tuesday Night Bloggers are looking at crime fiction which includes poison and when thinking about this topic it came to me that unlike some murder methods, poison arguably has a much greater influence on the plot of the story. For instance when someone is stabbed to death or shot, there is not much doubt that it wasn’t natural death. Of course shooting can be made to look like suicides, but I think with poisons, the subsequent detective investigation has to grapple with a number of questions. Was poison used? And if so which one? And then how and when was the poison used? Only then can be the question of who administered the poison be answered. So my post today looks at the variety of ways poison has been used and also the range of purposes poison has had in crime fiction.
In order to talk about this subject in a meaningful way I have sometimes had to include spoilers which reveal criminal identity (or reveal enough clues you could guess it) and/or murder method twists. Therefore if you haven’t read Sayers’ Strong Poison you will want to skip reasons 1 and 8. Equally if you haven’t read Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington and Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral avoid reason 2. If you haven’t read Christie’s The Moving Finger skip reason 4 and avoid reason 7 if you haven’t read Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Reason 8 should be avoided if you haven’t read Christie’s Peril at End House, After the Funeral and Sad Cypress and reason 9 should not be read if you haven’t read The Five Little Pigs by Christie. Finally if you haven’t read Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery and Third Girl and Carter Dickson’s The Judas Window then avoid reason 11. All texts are in bold so you can see when texts to avoid are coming up.
Reason 1: Poison as a Woman’s Weapon
Michael C. Gerald has written that ‘poisons have been historically linked with female murderers because of women’s control in the kitchen and the ease with which they can be surreptitiously added to the food or drink of the intended’ (Gerald, 1999: 337). He goes on to say that the killer doesn’t need to be physically stronger than the victim when using poison, again making it a more convenient murder method for women. Gerald also interestingly points out that ‘the common first impulse of a Christie criminal investigator is to consider suitable female suspects,’ (Gerald, 1999: 337) when the crime is one of poison. So in this first instance the use of poison in a story can often have a strong influence on the sleuths when they are sizing up the suspects, giving them a gender bias, and to a degree the readers’ perceptions may also be influenced. With this assumption in mind detective writers have played around with it, in particular having a male killer use this method in order to implicate a woman in particular or women more generally. A key example of this is Dorothy L Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930), where a male killer in fact does this, knowing that his victim Philip Boyes, having ingested the poison will be going on to visiting his ex-lover, Harriet Vane. And Boyes indeed dies soon after leaving her home, which adds further suspicion towards Vane.
Reason 2: Poison Advantages
A prime advantage for using poison as a murder weapon is that it can give a decree of anonymity to the killer. This is because the way a poisoned is administered can obscure the identity of the killer, as the investigators may think the poison was given one way, when in fact it was given in a different way. This is epitomised in Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington (1957), as the killer makes it look like the poison was given in the curry when it wasn’t. This conceals their involvement in the business as it gives them an alibi and it also widens up the field of suspects as many of the characters are seen to go into the kitchen when the curry is being made. Poison can also obscure the identity of the killer because the killer doesn’t need to be there at the time the person dies, as poison can be added to an item such as a medicine bottle or capsules (see Christie’s Dumb Witness (1937)), or a drinking flask (see Joanna Canaan’s Murder Included (1950)) ahead of time. There are two significant examples of this advantage to using poison, though I shall only be mentioning one of them, as the other – a Christie title – would be spoiled just by the mentioning of the book title. The other one though is Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral (1931), where this advantage is used brilliantly and leads to a fabulous twist at the end of the story.
N. B. In some cases poison is used to narrow the suspect field rather than widen it, though I don’t think this is done as often. But an example I have read this year is Vernon Loder’s The Mystery at Stowe (1928), where a poison blow pipe is used to incriminate a female explorer.
Reason 3: Poisons can be used to make a death look like a suicide, an accident or a natural death.
This reason ties into my previous one as again having a death not look like murder is ideal camouflage for a killer. Christie who used poisons a lot in her stories has had poison used to look like an accidental overdose such as in Lord Edgware Dies (1933) and in The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), where Gerry Wade is thought to have died by accidently taking an overdose of chloral. An interesting variety of this type of murder can also be found in Frances Iles’ Malice Aforethought (1931). Christie’s fictional killers have also used poison to make a murder look like a natural death such as in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), and to look like a suicide such as in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). Although in my opinion this last one is a clumsy effort and I doubt whether the reader is fooled by it. Poirot certainly isn’t.
Reason 4: Poison is not always a substance. Sometimes it is in the mind.
Looking at poison in a more metaphorical way, detective writers have frequently explored how rumours and gossip can poison a community and relationships, to extent that death ensues either through prompted suicides or murder. I am talking of poison pen letters and this is embodies in The Moving Finger (1942), where poison pen letters lead to unplanned deaths, but are also used by a killer to camouflage their identity and intentions.
Reason 5: A Variety of Deaths
Arguably there are only so many ways you can stab or shoot someone, though some variation is possible. In my opinion though I think greater variety can be achieved through poison and more easily for writers. First of all there is more than one poison to choose from, from arsenic to zootoxin and each of these work differently in terms of symptoms, cause of death and how long this takes to come about. Christie herself used a wide range of poisons in her work, having poison put into anaesthetic (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) and eye drops (Crooked House (1949)) for example. Ngaio Marsh, although not using poison much in her stories, did use it in some unusual ways such as placing it in a scent bottle in False Scent (1960). Freeman Wills Crofts is not a favourite author for me, but his book I enjoyed the most was Antidote to Venom (1938), where unsurprisingly snake venom is involved, but again still quite an inventive way of killing someone. Additionally I also think in some ways poison induced deaths can be more dramatic than other murder methods, such as in Martha Ockley’s The Reluctant Detective, (2010) where a vicar dies in front of his congregation after drinking from the communion wine cup.
Reason 6: Poisons can also help create impossible crime scenarios
Due to the difficulty detectives sometimes have in deciding how a poison was administered and when, some crimes can initially seem like impossible crimes, such as in Christie’s Death in the Clouds (1935), where one of the problems is figuring how the poison could have been administered within a small aeroplane full of passengers. Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn has a similar issue in Death in Ecstasy (1936) and in Death at the Bar (1940), where one of his biggest problems is figuring how the poisons could have dispensed. Though I think Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger (1944) is probably my favourite example of this difficulty. The impossibility of such crimes is also contributed to by the fact that there is often a closed set of suspects such as Brand’s novel, but also in Hans Olav Lahlum’s The Satellite People (2015).
Reason 7: There is always the chance the killer might murder the wrong person.
Although this is possible with some other murder methods, I think due to the fact most other methods require the killer to be in close proximity to their victim, that this is less of an issue. But when it comes to poisoning someone the risk of this happening can be much higher, especially if the killing is to take place in a group situation like in Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide (1945). Other examples include Cyril Hare’s An English Murder (1951) and Anthony Berkeley Cox’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) where the question of whether the victim was the intended one is brought up. However, one of the cleverest uses of this problem I have read is in Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), where the murderer bumps off another person, yet makes themselves look like the intended victim, which again is another way poisons can be used to obscure a killer’s identity.
Reason 8: Self-poisoning as a means of diverting suspicion.
This is an idea I touched upon in my previous reason, but I felt it was deserving of separate category, as it is used a lot in fiction. For example in Christie’s Peril at End House (1932) not only does the killer pretend they are the intended victim, but they reinforce this idea by having poisoned chocolates sent to them, which they partially eat to become ill but not fatally so. Furthermore, the idea of the killer appearing like a casualty of another’s murder plot to kill someone else is also realised in Christie’s Sad Cypress (1940) and After the Funeral (1953). To ensure that they themselves are not bumped off by their own murder plan, killers often only eat a small amount or they increase their tolerance level to the poison by ingesting it over time, which is used to great effect in Sayer’s Strong Poison.
Reason 9: Quick, Quick, Slow
The length of time it takes someone to die after ingesting poison can vary widely and I think this is another advantage of using it in a detective fiction story. I have already mentioned how it can help the killer, but I also think in terms of characterisation it can have quite an impact on a story. The example I have in mind is Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942), where the killer watches her victim slowly die, as he paints her portrait. In terms of psychology I found this quite a powerful image, that someone could have the stomach to sit and face someone die like that. Another interesting example of poison and the time it takes to die can be found in Wings Above Diamantina (1936) by Arthur Upfield, where a girl is poisoned in order to incapacitate her, but her intended death was to be in a plane crash. When this does not happen she is still in a dire predicament as the poison slowly makes her condition deteriorate and there is an additional tension in the story as to whether the name of the poison can be identified and also whether the antidote can be found in time.
Reason 10: ‘One May Smile and Smile, and be a Villain…’
I think part of the appeal for detective writers using poison in their works is that poisons can be made to appear so innocent, as it can be made part of something else. Unless you are very paranoid you are unlikely to look at your breakfast (Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)), your face cream or evening cocoa as a murderer’s tool and therefore you are less likely to be on your guard. Sometimes this leads to a close call for the detective such as with Albert Campion in Death of a Ghost (1934) by Margery Allingham, whilst other detectives are not so easily fooled such as Miss Marple in Christie’s Nemesis (1971).
Reason 11: Poisons aren’t just for killing.
Stabbings and shootings are predominantly used to kill. Yet poisons in crime fiction have been used in much more inventive ways as they can be used to manipulate another person’s perceptions and actions and in some cases this is utilised in order to frame somebody for a crime. Three prime examples of this can be found in Christie’s Third Girl (1966) and A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and also in Carter Dickson’s The Judas Window (1938). Including this in a story can help to vary a plot and I also think it adds an additional level of sinister-ness to the killer, as using people in that way is quite a chilling thing to read about.