Mystery Monday: Agatha Christie and Her Poisons
Dame Agatha Christie is perhaps one of the most well-known mystery writers from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. With a career spanning over fifty years, she wrote sixty-six novels and fourteen short story collections. She is the best-selling novelist of all time, and according to her website, has only been outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare.
Poison is the most common murder weapon of choice in nearly half of her books. Over thirty victims die from one of fourteen different poisons from belladonna to ricin. Many Christie scholars have attested that her use of poisons stems from her service as a nurse and then dispenser (of medicine) first during The Great War and then again during WWII.
Born in 1890 in Torquay, England, she served at the Torquay hospital from October 1914 through September 1918. When WWII broke out, she renewed her training at University College Hospital in London and volunteered again. According to Christie herself it was her work in the dispensary that birthed the thought of writing a mystery novel:
“It was while I was working in the dispensary that I first conceived the idea of writing a detective story…and my present work seemed to offer a favourable opportunity. I began considering what kind of detective story I could write. Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected.”
Often the poisons she used were common to the time such as cyanide (a favorite of hers) that was available in the form of a pesticide and thallium which was used in rat poison. In addition arsenic and strychnine were still available in medical uses. Like any good writer, her research library was extensive, and she built up a large medico-legal library over her career. According to one website, Martindale: The Extra Pharmacopoeia was the most “well-thumbed” book in her collection.
Reviews mean a lot to writers, and Christie cherished the following review about The Mysterious Affair at Styles above all others: “This novel has the rare merit of being correctly written.” Coming from the Pharmaceutical Journal this was high praise indeed to this pharmacist’s assistant turn mystery writer.