True Crime Parallels to the Mysteries of Agatha Christie (2020) by Anne Powers

On first learning about this book, I was intrigued by its concept. The marrying up of true crimes with Agatha Christie stories, certainly seemed like a good idea to me, and an initial glance at the contents page, showed an interesting variety of true crimes and Agatha Christie novels and short stories. I was familiar with a few of the true crimes mentioned, but there were several which were completely new to me. In the preface to this work Powers states that she will be looking at how Christie’s tales were ‘informed’ by these crimes. This book presents ‘a collection of ten famous Christie creations’ and examines ‘them together with histories of the sensational, tragic, or scandalous real-life events that coloured them.’ Powers asserts that Christie’s work ‘either strikingly mirrored aspects of the famous real-life event, or took the event as a starting point, speculating via her fictional accounts on possible dramatic consequences’ and at times provides a ‘sort of alternate, if fictional, closure to cases where justice may have fallen short in real life; or […] a surrogate kind of revenge for suffering survivors of some true-life crimes.’ Powers then goes on to write that Christie’s ‘genius lay in seeing the human-interest possibilities in the notorious crimes that studded cultural history, and in then connecting and translating some of those possibilities into cathartic, if fictional, experiences.’

Each chapter is divided into three sections, (with some chapters having an additional postscript). The first section gives the reader ‘a detailed profile of a celebrated crime’ and the second section provides ‘a summary of the relevant fictional Christie work.’ The final section is ‘a comparison showing, point by point, the relationship between aspects of the true crime and aspects of the Christie tale.’

Before reading each section I would check which Christie title is being discussed, as if you have not read the book in question, I would recommend skipping that particular section.

“The Rugeley Poisoner”: Dr William Palmer and The Mysterious Affair at Styles

I have heard of the Palmer case, but I was not particularly aware of the details. This doctor who would be later nicknamed ‘Prince of Poisoners’ was hung aged 32 for the poisoning of John Parsons Cook with strychnine. The two of them owned racing horses, yet Cook’s winnings went from strength to strength, whilst Palmer ended up with severe gambling debts. So Palmer decided to bump his friend off in order to make use of his winnings. Despite his nickname it seems Palmer was no one’s expert when it comes to killing people, given the number of errors he made and non-subtle actions he took. FYI it is not a good idea to try and bribe the corner…

Powers provides an interesting range of connections between this crime and Christie’s debut novel. Some felt a little coincidental, such as Cook staying at the Talbot Arms and there being a Styles Arms inn in the book. But other assertions seem better founded. Money is obviously at the root of both murders, and one suspect is indeed in debt, and like Palmer had ‘abandon[ed] their profession […] to follow [a] more congenial occupation.’ Emily Inglethorp’s death equally mirrors Cook’s in its timing, the witnessed symptoms and the way their cries roused the household. Another suspect, a Dr Bauerstein arrives suspiciously promptly after her death, which Palmer also did in real life. Other parts of the killer’s modius operandi chime in with Palmer’s actions as well, such as the conversation he had with the chemist when buying the strychnine.

I felt the summary of The Mysterious Affair at Styles was too long, with a number of extraneous comments and details; an issue which snowballs as the book progresses, unfortunately.

 “La Femme Fatale”: Madame Marguerite Steinheil and The Murder on the Links

The crime focused on in this chapter was entirely new to me and in short concerns the murder of Adolphe Steinheil and his mother in law, who were found strangled one morning in 1908 in France. Adolphe’s wife was bound and gagged, in another room. It was suggested that it was robbery gone wrong. However, it is not long before his wife, Marguerite, is arrested for the crime, her infamous adulterous past with the President of France, Felix Faure, no less, coming back to bite her. Her testimony of what occurred that night is decidedly ropey, unlike the rather loose bindings used to tie her up, and due to the pressure from the authorities and the trial by press she was receiving, she began to start changing her story. Ultimately she would go on to accuse two of her servants and she even planted evidence on one of them. Surely when this came to trial the verdict was a foregone conclusion? Er no, as despite her tawdry past she played the weak woman card and exerted all of her feminine wiles on the jury and she was duly acquitted. Afterwards, she rose like a phoenix out of the ashes, unlike those who were also embroiled in the case, including her current lover and her daughter, whose engagement crumbled due to the scandal.

I enjoyed reading about this case and I could soon begin to see the links with Christie’s Murder on the Links, not only in the plot Eloise Renauld and her husband Paul cook up, but also in the earlier murder Paul got entangled in engineered by Mme Beroldy/Daubreuil; a murder she got away with in the exact same manner as Marguerite did. Though interestingly Paul had learnt from the errors of the first crime and made sure that Eloise’s bindings were authentically tight. Both Marguerite and Daubreuil also interestingly have a daughter named Marthe too. Christie’s autobiography would suggest that she was aware of the case.

I think this chapter brings out how Christie creatively used this true crime and added a greater level of puzzle complexity to it. In the preface to Powers’ book she explains how the final section in each chapter, which compares the true crime with Christie story, will involve some repetition of information. She states this is to save the reader from having to flick back and forth to check up on information. However, by chapter two of this book I did not feel this reason held its ground. The level of repeated material from sections 1 and 2 of the chapter was excessive and mostly unnecessary. The chapters are not long, so it is easy to hold the earlier information in your head and the way the previous sections are written, means the details provided are memorable. The synopsis of Murder on the Links could have been condensed and added into the comparison section, as the repetition started to come across more as padding.

 “Dope Girl”: The Case of Billie Carleton and ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’

In 1918, fashionable and well-known music hall star Billie Carleton died of a cocaine overdose, hours after attending the Victory Ball. She had been a drug user for many years and her friends and even her fashion designer indulged and supplied. This might seem very commonplace to us today, yet in 1918 her death created a wave of national shock at the threat illicit drugs were presenting. The question of who supplied her and how and when she got the drugs were soon raised and public opinion rapidly selected her designer, Reginald de Veulle as the guilty party. He was British born, but his French heritage was used against him, as the general paranoia around this situation decided that the problem was coming from ‘a lowlife, degenerate, and foreign underclass element’ and that it was threatening ‘guileless or unprotected young women.’ In contrast Billie was re-drawn as a victim who was preyed upon and her own moral misdemeanours were exonerated and overlooked. On little evidence Veulle was sent for trial, yet despite public opinion and the weighted summing up by the judge, he was acquitted.

Christie’s short story was published in 1923 and as well as the similar setting of the Victory Ball, Christie also has an actress called Coco Courtenay die of a cocaine overdose, and like Billie she is discovered dead in her bed in the morning and she has a ‘decorative enamel box,’ in which she keeps her stash. Intriguingly this is discovered by the body of a murdered man at the ball. Christie’s inclusion of a character dressed in a Harlequin costume equally ties in with Veulle, who wore the same one to the ball. This chapter concludes with a short postscript which looks at drugs in other works by Christie. The repeated information in this chapter felt more minimal.

“The Crime of the Century”: The Case of the Lindbergh Kidnapping and Murder on the Orient Express

The connection between the Lindbergh kidnapping and Murder on the Orient Express, is one of the best known, yet I still found details I was not familiar with. When reading the progression of the real case, and the eventual arrest, I did begin to feel a little like an armchair juror, weighing up the circumstantial evidence. It is interesting to wonder if the right man was found, and if he was, whether he had any accomplices. Christie gives the kidnapping a more definitive ending with Ratchett getting away with his deed and the true crime origins, form a starting off point for Christie who explores the ‘aftermath involving survivors of a horrific crime.’ Ratchett’s crime mirrors the real-life kidnapping, as does the subsequent police investigation.

Again this was another chapter which suffered from material being repeated too much. This repetition is not just an occasional sentence, but several paragraphs at a time and I felt this information could have been easily condensed. The final comparison section was a little disappointing, as it did not exhibit the level of analysis I was hoping for, predominantly focusing on linking the characters with their possible real-life counterparts. The thematic comments included, to me, seemed lacking in detail.

“The Kidwelly Mystery”: Harold Greenwood and ‘The Lernean Hydra’

Harold Greenwood was put on trial for poisoning his wife Mabel with arsenic in 1920. Greenwood was a notoriously unfaithful husband, and reliant on his wife’s money, with his legal work income being somewhat erratic. Four months after her death he then married a much younger woman. Community gossip reached fever pitch and the authorities eventually stepped in with an exhumation. Mabel did indeed die of arsenic poisoning. Once more we see a case where the guilty party seems obvious, yet weak and inconsistent testimony, plus something of an oversight on the Prosecution’s part, meant that Greenwood was acquitted.

Christie’s interaction with this case, in her story, is intriguing. The obvious suspect is now more sympathetically portrayed, (only having the one lover, unlike Greenwood), and it is the man who goes to Poirot for help, hoping he can bring resolution to the matter, fearing local gossip will engulf him. The same poison is used as in the Greenwood case and the story embodies the ferocity of the gossip Greenwood experienced. It is a pity that Powers does not explicitly discuss the ending, which based on her own profile of the true crime, seems to explore another suspect/witness more closely and provide an alternative solution to the murder.

 “An Outbreak of Sadism”: The Case of Dennis O’Neill and ‘Three Blind Mice’

Dennis and his two brothers were removed from their parents’ care due to neglect in 1940 and lived in various foster homes. By 1944, when Dennis was 12, he and one of his younger brothers were put into the care of Reginald and Esther Gough, who were farmers. War time conditions, staff shortages and lack of proper training meant that it took 6 months for a follow up visit to be paid by authorities in charge of supervising their fostering. It didn’t help that two councils shared jurisdiction for the area, so naturally each thought the other was or should do the relevant following up. This visit led to a letter being sent to the relevant governing bodies that the boys be removed, their condition being very poor physically and psychologically. Nothing happened. In 1945 in January Dennis was so severely beaten that by the time a doctor was called he had been dead for hours. Noting the wounds and his emaciation the doctor did not sign a death certificate. His death caused a national stir and a lot of criticism was directed at the authorities involved, with insufficient checks having been conducted for Reginald who had a previous conviction for violence.

This is another case which is mentioned in Christie’s autobiography and it is one which acts as another starting point for Christie’s imagination, looking at what happens later after the crime. In her story a woman is murdered in London and she was just released from prison having served time for treating her three evacuees so badly that one of them died on her farm. With this setup the tale soon suggests that someone is out for revenge for the death of that evacuee and that this killer is heading straight for a young couple’s snow bound guest house. According to Powers, the choice of the second victim in the book, the billeting officer responsible for handing the children over to the woman, mirrors ‘the blame heaped on individuals of the Shropshire council and the Newport Authority,’ who were ‘not legally accountable for the tragic outcome.’ Powers goes on to argue that Christie’s story suggests that ‘nonetheless [… they bore] a certain moral blame…’

This was a point that I found very interesting and I wish there could have been more of this, as instead the chapter is bogged down with excessive repetition of previously mentioned material. Information provided 2-3 pages ago does not really need to be retold and instead made it seem like there was insufficient new information to be given.

The “Little Man”: Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen and Mrs McGinty’s Dead

In 1910 Crippen was ‘accused of murdering his wife, Cora, by administration of the poison hyoscine.’ He then dismembered the body and buried her under the cellar. He tried to put Cora’s friends off the scent, (pun retrospectively intended), by saying she went to America and died. But eventually the police were on to him and he and his younger lover tried to flee on a boat to America. There has been a question mark over how involved Ethel Le Neve was in the murder of his wife.

This conflicted love triangle between Cora, Ethel and Crippen is replicated in Christie’s novel, in which Poirot has to decide which of four notorious women may have killed a cleaner to hide her past. One of these possible women is Eva Kane, who was said to be the lover of ‘infamous wife killer’ Alfred Craig. Craig is described in a similar way to Crippen and he lies in the same way about his wife’s sudden disappearance. Powers comments that:

‘Christie’s approach to the Crippen affair, via her novel, offers a change of angle on the story. Most commentators on the case focused their attention on the motives and character of the enigmatic Dr Crippen. Christie approaches the notorious crime by fixing her gaze on the even more enigmatic Le Never. Thus giving pride of place to suspicion and conjecture surrounding the role Crippen’s mistress had played in the slaying of Cora Crippen – if any.’

I think a valid comparison is made in this chapter, but the majority of the synopsis of the book does not relate to the point which joins crime and story. Eva Kane’s past is only one aspect of four lives and therefore does not hold a huge place in the book as a whole.

The “Balham Mystery”: The Case of Charles Bravo and Ordeal by Innocence

Charles Bravo died of antimony poisoning in 1876. He was a jealous husband of a rich woman named Florence, whose lover from the past never quite left the scene. She also resisted his plans to take control of her money and was against them trying for another child, given her previous two miscarriages, which left her very unwell. Did he commit suicide? Was he murdered by his wife, her lover, or her companion, who he wanted fired? All three lives were marred by his death, as every sordid detail was uncovered and at the end of two inquests the verdict was murder by person or persons unknown. The social disgrace for all of them was immeasurable. But who did the deed?

With such a setup it is natural to spot the commonality between this case and Christie’s book. In fact Christie wrote about this crime in 1968 for the Sunday Times. Powers sums up Christie’s story this way:

‘Ordeal gives pride of place to validating attention to besieged guiltlessness. The story graphically demonstrates how the insidious and inescapable gangrene of deadly, lifelong suspicion of guilt could eat relentlessly away at the spirits, the lives – and even the deaths – of the wrongly-suspected.’

Both Bravo’s and Rachel’s deaths occur within similar social and wealth settings; though interestingly in Christie’s book it is the wife with the money who is the victim, not the prime suspect. Both victims wished to direct and control the lives of those closest to them – but in different ways and for different reasons. This chapter also looks at another case which relates to the book – the Croydon poisonings which took place in the 20s, which arguably influenced Christie’s short story ‘Sing a Song a Sixpence’ (1929).

I felt this chapter was one of Powers more successful comparisons, as over-repetition is avoided by her inclusion of an additional crime and short story to look at. A similar strategy in other chapters might have been a good idea.

“Poor Little Rich Girl”: The Life of Gene Tierney and The Mirror Crack’d

Gene Tierney was a Hollywood actress who seemed to have it all but did not. Not long into her successful career and her father is discovered to be misappropriating a lot of her earnings and financial assets. Her marriage is far from ideal and an expected child, which they hoped would bring them together, does not, as after having contracted rubella during her pregnancy, Gene’s child is born with many development problems. Years later a woman tells her how she met her at that time, and it was she who gave her the measles, unaware of what her contact did. The consequence was not murder, as in Christie’s story, but a breakdown.

Whilst I can see the obvious link between Gene’s troubled life and Christie’s novel, it doesn’t comfortably fit with the topic of true crime. Though in a way I suppose the book is suggesting that Christie’s story is exploring the idea that ‘the far-reaching destructive results of a well meant, but ultimately self-centred […] act,’ were in need of some kind of justice.

The link between real life and fiction is a well-established one and reading this chapter I was not sure we were told anything most people didn’t roughly know already. The final section making the comparison operates with a few details, which are elongated and repeated so many times. Some pieces of information are possibly even repeated over several paragraphs 3 times. I should point out the chapter is only 19 pages long. The writer also has a tendency to use 10 words where 3 would suffice, and a consequence it shows up the lack of material that is being worked with in the final section. I also found it peculiar that Powers discusses the similarities without revealing the solution of the book and its motive. I imagine this is a well-intentioned act to prevent readers learning major spoilers, but on the whole it made her commentary sound odd, as she side stepped around it.

The “Brides in the Bath” Murderer: George Joseph Smith and A Caribbean Mystery

Smith was executed in 1915 for murdering three of his wives in order to gain their finances, using the same method each time. Other women did not lose their lives, but they all lost their finances.

Christie’s text openly alludes to this crime, with Miss Marple and Mr Rafiel discussing the Smith case in relation to the killer they may have loose at the holiday resort they are staying at. Like Smith there is a possible serial wife killer in their midst, though instead of the bath, it seems this man makes events look like their wife is becoming increasingly unstable and that they have eventually committed suicide. The killer in this book equally manages to detach his chosen spouse from their relations and is able to dupe doctors into believing that there is a specific thing is wrong with his wife, (of the moment). Smith managed to convince a doctor each time that his current wife was subject to blackouts and faints.

The section comparing crime and text takes its time to arrive at the connections between them and despite being given a lengthy summary of the plot, we are still told at this late juncture that:

‘The “Caribbean mystery” referred to in the novel’s title derives from the demise of one Major Palgrave, a fellow guest at the West Indies island resort where Miss Marple is staying.’

This level of repetition is not required for your average reader, and the consistent use of it makes me wonder if the writer thinks her readers are like Dory from Finding Nemo. The problem with having too much of the plot repeated, over several paragraphs, more than once, is that it starts to make your reading experience become reminiscent of the film Groundhog Day.  This is a shame as Powers includes an interesting discussion on the use of a photograph in the book with the deployment of photographs to catch Smith, as well as the way his repeated murder method created an identifiable picture pattern, which could link other deaths to him. More discussion like this was needed in my opinion. This chapter ends with a postscript looking at the other instances Christie uses photographs in her work.

At £44.95 the paperback edition of this book is unfortunately outside the comfortable range a reader would want to spend on a book, though the e-version is cheaper. Those who prefer a physical book may wish to consider seeing if their local library has a copy.

I still maintain that this is an interesting topic for a book, and Powers is skilled in her creation of the crime profiles. She weaves together a good narrative, but I am not sure enough material was gained for each chapter when it comes to the comparison sections. The effectiveness of the chapters being divided into three sections is definitely impacted by the repetition of material.

Rating: 3.5/5

Source: Review Copy (McFarland)

10 comments

  1. I’m glad I read your review (it was wonderful BTW) before dropping so much money on the book. I had this on my short list for possible birthday suggestions to my husband, but was astounded by the cost. I think I’ll pass on this unless I can find it either at the library or less expensive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it is unfortunate that non-fiction titles on classic crime are often very expensively priced, though there is the odd exception or two. Palgrave Macmillan have brought out a number of books which are of interest to the classic crime enthusiast, but at £60-70 they are out of the normal reader’s price range. But if you ever come across a copy at a good price I would recommend getting Megan Hoffman’s book Gender and Representation in British Golden Age Crime Fiction, Merja Makinen’s Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity and Victoria Stewart’s Crime Writing in Interwar Britain. All three of these books are very good at exploring their topics.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, it is mentioned in Agatha Christie: A Biography by Janet Morgan. On a return trip from the Middle East just before Christmas in 1931, traveling alone, she was also trapped in the Orient Express for 24 hours, when during a violent thunderstorm causing flooding, the train stalled due to a washed-out bridge.In her long letter to Max, she narrates in detail her experience . She describes many of her fellow passengers including a garishly dressed Turk in the compartment next to hers, who kept trying to open the connecting door all during the night, “not, let us hope for the wrong reason, but I think because he thought it was the wash place !”
        This letter is quoted in full in Janet Morgan’s book.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Only read the Gene Tierney section in detail, as that’s my particular bugbear with Christie’s use of inappropriate source material. Not sure why the author chose not to spoil it because by even introducing the idea of the comparison should make the plot of the book obvious.

    And quite right, the Tierney story is a crime, not a tragedy. Christie claimed to be unaware of it, something that seems very unlikely given all of the parallels. And to think, I used to love that book before I found out the source…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Santosh Iyer Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.