Poison in Agatha Christie's novels
Updated: Dec 27, 2022
In the course of her career, Agatha Christie is known to have killed off her characters; some by drowning, stabbing and one with a crowbar! But as most of her readers know, her preferred murder weapon was chemical rather than physical. Christie was notoriously good at dreaming up undetectable poisons, and prolific with their use - at least in fiction. Out of her 66 murder mysterious, poison was the cause of death for more than 30 characters!
Her familiarity with lethal substances was rooted in real life experience. 131 years ago, she volunteered as a nurse during World War 1, and was stationed in a hospital dispensary after passing an exam to qualify as an apothecary’s assistant. Prescriptions were prepared by hand in those days, so Christie became very familiar with the dosages of a variety of drugs - and their toxic effects, according to Kathryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie.
Christie was lucky to study under a pharmacist who seemed to be from a mystery novel himself. In her autobiography, she writes that he once showed her a lump of a plant extract called curare, which he kept in his pocket, and which killed people by inducing paralysis and asphyxiation. He said that he carried it because “It makes me feel powerful,” according to Christie.
The pharmacist later appeared, in fictionalised form, as a character in her 1961 novel The Pale Horse. In real life, however, Christie may have used her knowledge of toxic substances to prevent him from killing people, albeit inadvertently. Once, the pharmacist unwittingly prepared a batch of suppositories with ten times more medication than they were meant to contain. Christie at the time, wasn’t in the position to correct his mistake. Instead “She pretended to trip and sent the suppositories crashing to the floor, where she trof on them purposefully. After she had apologised profusely and cleared up the mess, a fresh batch was made, but this time at the correct dilution,” according to Harkup.
So, it makes sense that Christie’s plots relied more heavily on substances that could be slipped into something a British murder victim might eat or drink. The author and pharmacology professor Michael Gerald catalogues Christie’s favorite poisons, and their most effective deployments, in his 1993 book The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie. For example, he states that she was aware that arsenic trioxide is a good fit for teatime, since even 20 times the lethal dose can’t be tasted in a cup of tea. Taxine, on the other hand, is too bitter to go undetected in tea, but mixes well with marmalade.
But this knowledge and how she implemented it in books soon led to a drastic turn in events. Christie was understandably aghast when a real-world killer made use of one of her fictional concoctions. In the early 1970s, a British factory worker named Graham Frederick Young killed two of his coworkers by dosing their coffee and tea with thallium, “A tasteless, soluble and highly toxic substance that had never before been used on humans as a poison in Britain,” according to TIME. At the same time,It had, however, been the murder weapon in her book, The Pale Horse.
So all in all, poison and harmful chemicals have played a major role in Agatha Christie’s lifetime whilst inspiring and influencing her to write her novels that have turned into classics for the future generations to come. It also teaches the readers how she knew this much and how her real life experiences managed to shine through her writing, showing us glimpses of her life before fame.