Like many die-hard fans of Agatha Christie’s exemplary work, I was delighted to pick up A is for Arsenic - The Poisons of Agatha Christie to review. Written by Kathryn Harkup, the book compiles Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie’s love for incorporating ‘poisonous potions’ in her classic crime thrillers, ‘arsenic’ being one of her hot favourites. The book in-depth classifies, explains and analyses on how skilfully the famous author chose and incorporated the administering of fourteen poisonous drugs in her novels. Each of Christie’s works are not only interesting reads coupled with the element of suspense and surprise, they are also well-researched pieces intermixing science and literature beautifully.
Initially while reading a Christie novel, none of us realised how crucial and significant the selection and role of the poison was during the conceptualisation of the plot. It is in fact one of the core ingredients for a crime thriller. In the book, Harkup mentions precise details regarding Christie’s fascination for arsenic in the first chapter titled A is for Arsenic - Murder is Easy: “This is often the poison (arsenic) people most associate with Agatha Christie, but in fact only eight characters in four novels, and four short stories, were dispatched using this infamous element and some of these die ‘off stage’ with little description of their symptoms,” says Harkup in it.
I’ve grown up reading Christie’s novels, with her famous and iconic creations – Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple – occupying my mind space during boring lectures at school. The ace detectives – Poirot and Marple have been my sole aides during the summer vacations I spent while growing up, at my grandparent’s ancestral house every year in Shahjahanpur. Fortunately from mere adolescent musings, Christie’s protagonists followed me till college – Sri Venkateshwara College, wherein I did a paper on Christie’s works. Christie’s famous novel – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was a part of my syllabus in second year of the English Honours Course, and I must confess it was the most thrilling and delightfully engaging read. Back to Harkup’s book, she meticulously details the usage of fourteen death-inducing substances in Christies famous works which includes – Murder is Easy, The Labours of Hercules, Sparkling Cyanide, Appointment with Death, Crooked House, Five Little Pigs and others. A part from arsenic, other fatal substances which has been covered in these chapters include: belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorous, ricin, strychnine,thallium and veronal.
Each of these chapters in the book, explains the role of the poisonous substance by explaining the details under sub-sections which include: the story of the drug, how the drug kills, is there an antidote to the drug, Agatha Christie and the drug (which explains how she has aptly used it in her works) and also real-life cases related to the drug. Specifics related to the drug also include its chemical composition, origin and also its effects.
Analysing Christe’s style, Harkup writes, “She (Christie) was a teller of tales, an entertainer, and a poser of seemingly insolvable puzzles... Christie took advantage of her detailed knowledge of dangerous drugs to help develop her plots... An understanding of the science behind the poisons Christie used only gives a better appreciation of her cleverness and creativity in plotting.” The author also describes Christie as a “master of misdirection” wherein the clues would be open and obvious in plain sight but when the reader discovers the real culprit they are caught unaware that they didn’t “spot the obvious”.
Giving a background into Christie’s life, the book tells us how she volunteered as “dispenser at University College Hospital, London”, where “her work at the hospital kept her up to date with new developments in drugs and pharmaceutical practice”. Clearly in each of crime thrillers, “the scientific details of her chosen poisons were well researched.” Christie also took inspiration from reality, referring to and citing several real-life cases in her novels.
“Agatha Christie refers to many real-life arsenic-poisoners in her novels, and used poisoning cases as inspiration for her plots. One poisoner she mentioned by name was Frederick Seddon, a particularly avaricious landlord who was found guilty of killing one of his tenants,” writes Harkup in the book. Another chapter chronicalises : “The best-known case of aconitine poisoning, one that Agatha Christie was almost certainly aware of, occurred in 1881. there are several similarities between the real-life case and the fictional poisoning written about later by Christie.” In one more segment, Harkup notes, “Some years after ‘Sad Cypress’, Agatha Christire returned to morphine as a means of murder in her 1968 novel By the Pricking of my Thumbs, in which a series of murders occurs in a nursing home, with no apparent motive. A real-life case from 1935 may well have provided inspiration to the author”.
The concluding segment of the book also carries an appendix titled Christie’s causes of death which collates information regarding the name of the Agatha Christie’s novel, detailing the drugs used in the ‘methods of murder’ in that book. The categories under methods of murder are suicide, attempted murder, medication withheld and invented drug. the second appendix titled Structures of some of the chemicals in this book, which displays the chemical structures for some the drugs mentioned in the book including belladonna, cyanide, opium, nicotine and others.
Interestingly intermixing science and literature this book, details of the compounds used by Christie in her novels, forming a quintessential segment in each of her plots. “Re-reading the novels and short stories during my research for this book has only increased my appreciation, not only for Christie’s scientific knowledge, but also of the way she incorporated it into her work... It (the book) is a celebration of Christie’s inventiveness, her brilliant plotting, and her attention to scientific accuracy,” explains the author.
Occupying a chunk and carefully shaping my adolescent years, Christie’s works have intensely impacted mine and I guess a million other minds. Each of her works is a sheer masterpiece and Harkup’s book makes every Christie-lover deeply revel in deciphering and revisiting the renowned author’s works through a unique perspective.