One day on Twitter, some science bloggers who began life on the dark side, in the humanities, happily discovered a shared taste for classic mystery writers. We thought we might write a series of posts, all on the same day, about the science in mystery books and so we did exactly that in December. And it was so much fun we decided to do it again.
My colleagues in crime, Jennifer Ouellette and Ann Finkbeiner, have looked to the great crime novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers, to explore other areas of science. At her blog, The Last Word on Nothing, Ann writes about post-traumatic stress syndrome in the aftermath of World War I. And at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer takes another Sayer’s book as the starting point for a journey through the physics of music.
As for me, this time around, I found a combination of Agatha Christie and the terrifying toxicity of strychnine to be an irresistible combination…..
There is altogether too much strychnine about this case - The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie, 1920.
In the midst of World War I – or so the story goes – a young Englishwoman received a literary challenge from her sister. Could she write a mystery novel in which the true villain was impossible to guess?
The response to that challenge was a tale of strychnine and murder that launched one of the most successful careers in crime fiction. No exaggeration whatsoever: the book was published, after several years of publisher hunting, in 1920; its title is The Mysterious Affair at Styles; its brilliant fictional detective is called Hercule Poirot and its author (30 years old at time of publication) is named Agatha Christie.
Christie would go on to write about 65 detective novels and some 14 short story collections (not to mention the occasional play) before her death in 1976. Over the years, sales of her books reportedly have reached close to four billion. But for purposes of this poison-obsessed blog, let us stipulate her dazzling success, her famed fictional characters, and even her famously intricate plotting techniques. Let us focus instead about another celebrated Christie characteristic: she also was obsessed with poisons.
They were her weapon of choice, so much so that a University of Texas pharmacology professor even wrote a book on the subject, titled The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie , a survey of the 30 odd poison murders in the mystery novelist’s 66 books. The poisons spanned such a range that the professor felt compelled, as one reviewer noted, to include a 76-page alphabetical listing of all the toxic compounds – from strychnine to arsenic to thallium to taxine – and all the related chemistry in the Christie ouevre.
I’ve been reading Christie and admiring her devious plotting since I was a teenager given to raiding my mother’s prized collection of murder mysteries. Her work and others from the 1920s and 1930s, a era sometimes called the golden age of detective fiction, always fascinated me. The wickedness of the poisons, the cold calculation of the poisoners in the stories, all influenced my own non-fiction book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, which takes a narrative look at forensic toxicology in that same time period. In an earlier Science of Mysteries post, I paid tribute to another brilliant crime novelist of the time, Dorothy L. Sayers and her well-researched study in arsenic, Strong Poison.
But no crime novelist wrote about poison with such knowledge and enthusiasm as Christie, who once said: “Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime.” In fact, at the time that Christie began work on A Mysterious Affair at Styles, she had been working as a wartime nurse, had been employed in a hospital pharmacy ( then called a dispensary), and had studied for and passed a test to become a member of the Society of Apothecaries.
So she began her career with a subject she knew well. And the plot of this first novel involves the strychnine poisoning of Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy and dictatorial elderly woman living at Styles, a classic English country house. The soon-to-be victim is recently remarried to a mysteriously bearded and slightly smarmy younger man. The marriage has thrown into disarray the inheritance plans of her two step-sons who both also live in the house. Residents also include the exotically beautiful wife of the older son and the love interest of the younger, a nurse who happens to work in a hospital dispensary, and assorted other suspects.
In fact, it’s very much a first novel, a writer finding her style. Christie would grow into an author with a smooth style, skilled in elegant misdirection. The Mysterious Affair at Styles has the misdirection without the elegance. It’s cluttered with quarrels, accusations, footprints, spies, cheating husbands, cheating wives and other misunderstandings among the red herrings litter the landscape. But in my particular version of fandom, all can be forgiven in admiration of the precise (and elegant) chemistry that underlies the story.