The world should thank Madge, Agatha Christie’s sister for spurring her on to write her first murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1917. During WWI, Christie was working as an apothecary’s assistant or dispenser, and was surrounded by drugs, poisons and ingredients that could save a life, or take it away, in an instant.
She had already penned a few poems and short stories, and told her sister that she was considering writing a detective story. Madge thought it would be difficult and bet Christie that it would come to nothing — so the younger woman set out to prove her wrong. “Being surrounded by poison bottles, she decided that poison would be the means of murder,” writes Kathryn Harkup in A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. The British author was in Delhi recently for the HT Crime Writers Festival. “I was 16 when I knew I wanted to study science. I had a passion for chemistry and went on to study it at the University of York. Reading about toxicology, Agatha Christie’s name kept cropping up in academic books; in crime fiction, she’s simply the best when it comes to poisoning people,” said Harkup, adding that she has been reading Christie’s novels closely since her teens.
In her book, considered by critics as a definitive guide to murder in Christieland, Harkup notes that the dame poisoned more than 300 characters in a staggering body of work — 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. “I appreciate the way Christie would give her readers these little asides, just a sentence here, or there. She knew her poisons and as a chemist, it was a delight to catch on to her clues,” said Harkup.
In her late thirties, she now works as a freelance science communicator. Her favourite use of poison is in Christie’s 35th book, Five Little Pigs. “The use of hemlock is absolutely spot on,” she added. But sometimes, even the Queen of Crime would stumble. In The House of Lurking Death, a Tommy and Tuppence Beresford mystery that was published as part of the short story collection Partners in Crime in 1929, Christie’s use of ricin was flawed, says Harkup.
And if you think that poison is mostly a woman’s modus operandi, Harkup lets you know that’s hogwash. “Historically, there have been more male poisoners than female poisoners but given the fewer numbers of female murderers, the case gets more attention and they are perceived as more common than they really are,” she said.
Harkup is now working on her second book, Imperfect Animation: The Science and Scientists Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “How does a 19-year-old girl with no formal education know all of this stuff? There were lots of experiments of the Frankenstein sort going on at the time. It was a very exciting time in science, and Shelley’s book encapsulates all of the fears as well as the optimism of science in that era,” she added.