A Taste for Poison

Agatha Christie & Poisons by Mystery Author Liam Ashe

Over a literary career spanning 66 novels and 164 short stories, Agatha Christie earned a reputation for knowing a thing or two about death. Estimates suggest that her body of work encompasses more than 270 murders, more than 40 accidental deaths, 40 suicides, and 50 assorted fatalities. Her weapon of choice? More than any other method, Agatha Christie preferred poison, a subject she knew all too well. Of the murders she devised, more than a third relied on toxins to do the deed.

During the First World War, Christie was a young woman living in Torquay while her husband served on the front. To support the war effort, she volunteered as a nurse in a hospital dispensary. This daily interaction with mixing medicines gave her the first thought to write a murder mystery.

She kept detailed journals during this time, noting the effects, symptoms, recommended dosages, and unusual properties of the medicines and poisons she encountered. These notes formed the basis for many of her later works. “Since I was surrounded by poison,” she wrote, “perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected.”

For the Christie enthusiast, the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of poisons offers an exciting glimpse into her methodology. As much as she enjoyed using toxins to pick off her literary prey, her choice of poisons was never random. Instead, she used her nursing background to select a method that was almost common-sensical—it fit the setting, made sense in terms of the story, and offered a wealth of clues to those who knew what to look for.

A is for Arsenic

In her seminal work A is for Arsenic, chemist and author Kathryn Harkup examines fourteen of Christie’s best-known novels involving the use of poison. For each entry, Harkup details the role a specific poison plays in a mystery, how the administration and medical outcome impact the story, why Christie may have chosen that specific toxin, and earlier cases that may have inspired the plot.

In addition to more common toxins like arsenic (Murder is Easy) and cyanide (Sparkling Cyanide), Harkup also explores the more exotic such as hemlock (Five Little Pigs) and strychnine (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and the downright obscure, like eserine (Crooked House) and monkshood (4:50 from Paddington). While some of the details may be better understood by readers with a background in chemistry, Arsenic makes a fascinating read for any Christie fan.

A Checklist of Deadly Delights

To avoid spoilers, be sure to read each of these Agatha Christie poison mysteries before diving into Harkam’s opus:

Just a few of the other Christie titles that revolve around the clever application of toxins include:

Love a good murder? Be sure to take a stab at Thou Shalt Not Kilt, a traditional Southern whodunnit with Scottish flavor. For my latest news and updates, follow me on Instagram and TikTok. If you love crime fiction, sign up for Fatal Fiction, my monthly mystery newsletter. You’ll get a free download of Masters of Murder, my concise guide to the authors of mystery’s Golden Age.

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