I’ve been a Dame Agatha Christie fan for very many decades now. She wasn’t my fave when I was young – I was a misogynistic jackass and thought she was a pale imitation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that she’s the better writer. I guess I’ll have to do an entire post on that eventually. But for now, just know I respect her story craft immensely.
And after reading A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup, I respect her a hell of a lot more.
This is a very necessary book for any Christie fan. It’s super neat getting to know her killers’ poisons better, especially the rare ones that are featured in this wonderful book. Kathryn does a marvelous job explaining such uncommon death-dealers as eserine, monkshood, nicotine, and veronal. There are even chemical structure diagrams as the section break symbols. If you’re a geek or a nerd, this book will make your heart grow three sizes.
Kathryn begins by singing Christie’s praises for knowing her poisons. She describes Christie’s work as a nurse during WWI, when she worked in a hospital dispensary. She was a natural, and keen-eyed, and saved a patient from getting an overdose when she spotted a grave mistake made by the man who was training her. (That dude later got memorialized as the pharmacist in Christie’s The Pale Horse. Having read this book recently, I can assure you that was a dubious honor indeed.)
Learning that she was actually a trained apothecary, and drew directly on her medical knowledge for her books, shot my respect for her through the stratosphere. And it makes The Mysterious Affair at Styles pop with elements that were taken from her direct experience. This chapter is wonderful for those of us who love her works, but haven’t learned much about her life.
The rest of the book is divided into chapters that are each devoted to a particular poison, and the Christie novel(s) they appear in. Spoilers abound, so if you haven’t read all of Christie’s books, and don’t want to know details, you’ll need to skim in places. Kathryn does warn when major plot elements are being discussed.
Each chapter gives a history of the poison in question, talks about how it affects the human body, and discusses the biochemistry behind its effects. We also learn how Christie’s characters used it, what details she got right, and what she got wrong and/or took some dramatic license with. Kathryn also talks about real-life criminal cases that may have inspired Christie’s stories. There is so much good stuff packed into a not particularly large book!
The appendices are one of my favorite parts. Appendix 1 gives a table that shows cause of death for all of Christie’s novels and short stories, in order of publication, and listed by both UK and US titles. This has simplified my quest to complete my collection by 1000%. The second appendix gives the chemical structures of the poisons. And if you want further reading, there’s a very nice bibliography.
This is one of the books I enjoyed most this year, and I finished it hoping Kathryn has enough material for a Part II. If you love Christie, chemistry, and/or crime, treat yourself to this book. You deserve it!
P.S. The Kindle version of The Pale Horse is free to borrow for Prime members right now. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re going to love it.
This website is a member of the Amazon Affiliates program. I get a small commission when you use my affiliate link to make a purchase.
Thank you so much for your support!