“A strangled cry from the bed startled me. A fresh access of pain seized the unfortunate old lady. . . A final convulsion lifted her from the bed, until she appeared to rest upon her head and her heels, with her body arched in an extraordinary manner . . . Mrs. Inglethorp cried out in a strangled voice, her eyes fixed on the doctor: ‘Alfred – Alfred – ‘ Then she fell back motionless on the pillows.” (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920)
We who read classic mysteries by the ton have strong expectations of the tropes of the genre. We like our settings closed, our suspects colorful and armed with interesting motives, our detective – whether eccentric or ordinary – well-equipped to handle the sleuthing at hand. And we know that there needs to be a means of murder. Victims have been shot, stabbed, strangled, burned, bludgeoned, boiled, blown up, electrocuted, frozen and filleted by the thousands. In his must-have history of unfairly forgotten mystery writers, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, Curtis Evans makes a powerful argument for John Rhodes as the creator of the most fiendish booby traps, sort of the MacGyver of Murder. (The method of dispatch in Corpse in the Car is quite complex!) But most victims are executed through more ordinary means. There’s your gun, ranging from the small pistol that fits neatly in a lady’s purse to higher caliber weapons that can do some real damage. Stabbings can range from the popular letter opener to a kitchen knife, or, if you want to be clever, an icicle. I just read a Paul Halter where someone was hacked with Excalibur!
But the true connoisseur’s method of murder in classic fiction has to be poison. And this month the Tuesday Night Bloggers have decided to focus their sights on that insidious substance! As soon as we chose that theme, I perked up because nobody knew their way around poisons like my favorite mystery author, Agatha Christie. People tend to write about what they know, and those who are familiar with Christie’s life are aware that she worked as a drug dispenser during both world wars and accumulated vast amounts of knowledge about poisons. Her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featured strychnine poisoning to horrific effect, (see the quote above), and various deadly toxins would feature in nearly thirty of her novels and dozens of short stories.
Readers with a special interest in the forensic details of a crime pay close attention when the method of a murder is discussed. Calibers of bullets reveal the make of a gun, while powder burns indicate distance. The shape of a stab wound can help an investigator discover the actual weapon. So can ligature marks, blood spatter, and a host of other grisly details. But to play off of Gertrude Stein, “A gun is a gun is a gun,” while the science of toxicology opens up a whole new playground for mystery writers.
Generally, these substances are divided into three categories: those of the abused medicine variety (i.e. digitalis, sleeping pills), those objects found in and around the house (i.e. rat poison, yewberries), and then a host of rarities that add spice to a mystery (i.e. thallium, botulism). I could list them all for you, but then I’d have to kill you. Naw, actually other writers have listed these quite thoroughly. (I refer you to the 2015 book by Kathryn Harkup, A Is For Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, which explores the author’s use of poison from the perspective of a biochemist.) There are hundreds of compounds, both natural and man-made, that act on the body in a wide variety of frightening and fatal ways. And that’s the real crux of the matter: variety plus the fear factor, the idea that a foreign substance introduced to a human being could have all sorts of terrible reactions, usually leading to death.
Using the author who raised of Death by Poison to an art, let’s explore the opportunities provided to a mystery author utilizing poison that other weaponry cannot as easily provide. The discussion that follows is full of potential spoilers, so Christie neophytes should proceed at their own risk.
TIME OF DEATH
In Styles, the violent nature of Mrs. Inglethorpe’s final moments leaves little room for doubt that her death was unnatural, despite her doctor’s first insipid response: “Her heart was far from strong.” By the end of the chapter containing her death, Captain Hastings is looking up the symptoms of strychnine poisoning in the family library. Yet, while the identity of the poison is never in question, the time and method of administration becomes as complex a part of the mystery as the killer’s identity. Was it in her evening meal? Her coffee? Hot chocolate? The medicine she took? Hercule Poirot considers all these possibilities, but ultimately it is his knowledge of the properties of strychnine and the way it interacts with a victim that provides him with the clever solution. In addition, the question arises as to when the poison was introduced to its source, affording the author with greater opportunities to confound the reader.
This much is known in Death in the Clouds (1935): Madame Giselle was alive and healthy when she boarded the airliner Prometheus from Paris to Croydon. When the plane lands, she is quite dead, and although a number of her fellow passengers had reason to kill her, nobody on the flight appears to have gotten near enough to the lady to do so. Christie introduces a number of fanciful possibilities: a hidden blow dart, a dead wasp. Yet how could either of these items be controlled enough by the killer to ensure the job gets done? The solution is one of the cleverest things about this mystery, a simple enough plan that relies on knowledge of human psychology.
People who use a gun in the study, a knife in the kitchen, a lead pipe in the conservatory, or even their bare hands face certain limitations: their skill with a weapon, their own strength, the need to remove all traces of the weapon or, at least, eliminate any trail that would lead from the weapon back to the killer. Poison provides expanded opportunities for killing another person. True, a great many victims ingest a poisonous substance in their food or drink. But when Mr. Amberiotis dies of an overdose of novocaine in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), Poirot can understand why the victim went without suspicion to his death: he received the lethal injection in the dentist’s chair!! This also explains his dentist’s apparent suicide. Poor grandmother Esa in Death Comes As the End (1944) learns too late that spiked unguent can be fatal – a fact that nearly claims the life of another victim in 1964’s A Caribbean Mystery.
SUICIDE OR MURDER?
“(Poirot) went over to the bed and stood looking down at the quiet dead face. He was very disturbed. Had the dead woman gone to the grave in a last determined effort to save a young girl from death and disgrace – or was there a different, a more sinister explanation? . . . Suddenly, he bent down, examining a dark discolored bruise on the dead woman’s arm. He straightened himself up again. There was a strange catlike gleam in his eyes . . . “ (Cards on the Table, 1936)
Poison allows an author to attach some ambiguity to the nature of an unnatural death. Yes, suicides have been known to shoot or hang themselves, but the relatively painless route of death by veronal or some other sleeping draft seems infinitely preferable. And, if the suspect is guilty – as Mrs. Lorrimer in Cards on the Table or Carlotta Adams in Lord Edgware Dies (1933) seem to be – then veronal seems preferable to a lengthy trial and death by hanging.
In addition to suicide, poison allows a stupid policeman to jump to the conclusion that death by overdose was unintentional. In Appointment With Death (1936), Mrs. Boynton’s weak heart made it necessary for digitalis to always be close by, a convenient bit of knowledge for a murderer trying to make the killing look like an accident. How easy it would have been to assume that Rosaleen Cloade in Taken at the Flood (1948) had taken an overdose of her sleeping medication since she had been so nervous lately. And Aristides Leonides in Crooked House (1949) was quite old and could have mistaken the eserine for another medication . . . except he didn’t, you know!
POISON IS EXOTIC
“It proceeds, you know, from the medium’s mouth in the form of a ribbon and builds itself up into a form. Now I am convinced, M. Poirot, that unknown to herself Miss Arundell was a medium. On that evening I distinctly saw a luminous ribbon issuing from dear Miss Arundell’s mouth! Then her head became enveloped in a luminous mist.” (Dumb Witness, 1937)
The killers of Sir Bartholomew Strange in Three-Act Tragedy (1934), Madame Giselle in Death in the Clouds (1935), Emily Arundell in Dumb Witness (1937) and Rex and Adele Fortescue in A Pocketful of Rye (1953) apparently poisoned their victims without being anywhere near them. It doesn’t hurt to have a talent for disguise, a certain adeptness at magic, a college education in the sciences or a willing accomplice to do your bidding. In addition, in all these cases, Christie relies on the exoticness of poison to add a layer of obfuscation to the whole case. Taxine poison at Yewberry Lodge is humorously redundant, but it also points to a local killer, just as the murderer wants it to do. The obsession with psychic phenomena amongst village women plays right into the killer’s hands in Dumb Witness. Murderers can turn quite resourceful when they are looking for poison. The serial killer in Murder Is Easy (1939) turns the infected ear of a beloved housecat into the source of deadly poison. And while we’ve seen a woman fall victim to a veronal overdose in Cards on the Table, other victims in that novel succumb to anthrax, bacteria, and hat paint! The poison of choice in Three-Act Tragedy is nicotine, which, in a society of smokers is easy to find and distill and is deliciously toxic. I can’t help wondering if the American Cancer Society wouldn’t be well served putting this warning label on its cigarette packs: “The substances found in this package easily killed two people in an Agatha Christie novel.”
Christie’s magnum opus of exotic poisoning has to be The Pale Horse (1961), where the author makes a very good case that witches do exist and are capable of murder from a great distance . . . until the hard, cold facts of science lay the superstitious foundations of this scheme to rest. Not only is this murderer brought to justice, but several true crime cases have subsequently been solved by readers who had read the novel and understood the significance of the symptoms.
THE ELEMENT OF BAFFLEMENT
“Miss Gilchrist came back into the room with a small parcel in her hand.
“’The postman must have been while we were at the inquest. He pushed it through the letterbox and it had fallen in the corner behind the door. Now I wonder – why, of course, it must be wedding cake.’
“Happily Miss Gilchrist ripped off the paper. Inside was a small white box tied with silver ribbon.
“’It is!’ She pulled off the ribbon; inside was a modest wedge if rich cake with almond paste and white icing. ‘How nice! Now who – ‘ she consulted the card attached. ‘John and Mary – Now who can that be? How silly to put no surname.’” (After the Funeral, 1953)
Let’s say that three people sit down to tea and sandwiches, all partake of the meal, and yet only one dies of morphine poisoning. Just how did the killer manage this? If the only person capable of controlling the administration of the poison is the one person you want to have end up innocent, then you’ve got the makings of a stirring murder case. Christie came up with nearly every variation on this gambit, including one plot where the whole case centers on who is trying to poison somebody, and the surprise solution turns out to be . . . nobody is!
More than any other weapon, poison adds layers of obfuscation to a mystery. A person is poisoned, often from a distance, (granted, a person who dives into a box of chocolates or a piece of wedding cake delivered anonymously to one’s door deserves what one gets!), and in addition to the question of murder vs. suicide, we are often led to ask, “Was this person the intended victim?” If X eats Y’s candy and dies, was the intended victim X or Y? The issue can be further muddied if the person survives the poisoning. Christie poisoned a lot of people in her career. Most of them died, but some of them survived and, without naming names, some of these so-called victims had a hand in their own poisoning in an attempt to cast suspicion away from themselves.
“Miss Johnson was lying in bed, her whole body contorted in agony. As I set down the candle and bent over her, her lips moved and she tried to speak – but only an awful hoarse whisper came. I saw that the corners of her mouth and the skin of her chin were burned a kind of grayish white. . . There wasn’t the least doubt what was the matter. Somehow or other, intentionally or otherwise, she’d swallowed a quantity of corrosive acid – oxalic or hydrochloric, I suspected.” (Murder in Mesopotamia, 1936)
I have no doubt that we armchair detectives who gobble up classic crime fiction would be reduced to sniveling wrecks if we were to ever be invited to a country weekend that ended in actual murder. Guns and knives draw blood, it’s true, but there’s something infinitely more unsettling about poison. As a murder method, it creeps up on you and invades the most normal of circumstances. A shooter has to aim and fire, but a poisoner can drop some arsenic into your marmalade at his or her earliest convenience. You are ambushed without knowledge, and the resulting effect resembles something we all fear – sickness. A merciful killer might administer a substance that brings permanent sleep, but most poisons bring pain and panic.
The ten little guests on Indian/Soldier Island in And Then There Were None (1939) begin to realize that theirs is no ordinary vacation when they hear the accusatory record play. But the real entry into madness occurs when Anthony Marston throws back his drink – “Here’s to crime!” –convulses horribly and falls to the floor dead. The most effective part of 1945’s Sparkling Cyanide is the murder itself: six people sitting in a circle at a swank London restaurant watch in horror as the guest of honor dies (“The blue cyanosed face, the convulsed, clutching fingers . . .”) It seems ludicrous to expect this party to reconvene a year later at the same restaurant, yet reconvene they do in order to honor the dead woman, only to witness the same tragedy happen again to her grieving husband:
“George swayed forward and slumped down in his chair, his hands rising frenziedly to his neck, his face turning purple as he fought for breath. It took him a minute and a half to die.”
Christie’s canon is filled with dramatic moments like these: the harmless Reverend Stephen Babbington in Three-Act Tragedy, the voluble Heather Badcock in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), the entire Crackenthorpe family in 4:50 From Paddington (1957). In some cases, the horror bursts full bloom at the scene, while in others it creeps up until the end when the full measure of a killer’s cruelty is revealed. There’s something chilling when the woman you’ve just had tea with – a woman as lovely and full of life as Adele Fortescue in A Pocketful of Rye – is found slumped over dead in the parlor only moments later. Perhaps most terrifying is the killer who endangers a roomful of good friends and poisons an innocent bystander merely so that they can practice the method of administration for a later time.
Throughout her career, Agatha Christie used poison to hone her skills of misdirection. They say poison is a woman’s weapon. From my calculation of the novels alone, Christie’s score comes out: Males=17, Females=12. One might see evidence that poison is a more cold-blooded weapon. There’s evidence of this in the slick plans many of Christie’s murderer’s come up with, but there are also plenty of examples of poisoning as a crime of passion.
Perhaps my favorite poisoning case in the whole canon is 1942’s Five Little Pigs. I think the detractors of this novel complain about its structure as a novel of restrospection. An argument can be made that a story based on a series of interviews that go over the same information from various perspectives can distance a reader from the emotional immediacy of the event. To my mind, it is to Christie’s credit that she can bring a cold case to life so that it packs an enormous punch at the end. The murder of Amyas Crale, a larger-than-life artist, takes on the character of a classic tragedy. At its center is the romantic triangle between three passionate people. The characters who gravitate around them each have their own strong feelings about Amyas, his wife Caroline and his mistress Elsa that have propelled everyone along for sixteen years. The method of murder is also classic, the same hemlock that felled Socrates, and the facts of how this poison was given to Crale make for a compelling mystery. Ultimately, though, the poison becomes a symbol of how love can wither and rot all too quickly, and once the facts of the case are revealed, our final understanding of Crale’s death , Caroline’s subsequent behavior, and Elsa’s portrait is devastating. As George R.R. Martin, a writer who has also been fond of lacing his characters’ food with substances vile, said:
“Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same.”