Just when you thought Agatha Christie whose detective fiction spanned over half a century from 1920 to 1976 was just a fun part of growing up into mature personhood and more “serious” literature, along comes Kathryn Harkup’s A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. And suddenly you realise that not only was the Queen of Crime writing during the golden age of mysteries but also as it turns out, the golden age of poisons. Did you know that? Apparently, Christie who bumped off vast numbers of people during the course of her long writing career was probably the most prolific author using poison, primarily as the modus operandi for murder.
There are two reasons for this we learn. The first is, she had almost zero knowledge of firearms and ballistics and therefore the ability to deal with the forensic intricacies of gunshot fatalities was something she was not too keen to assay. The second was that during the First World War she was a volunteer worker in a community hospital dispensary during which time she trained as an apothecary’s assistant. Later she even passed her exams after receiving private tuition from a commercial pharmacist. Little wonder then that her assortment of killer drugs and their dosages ranged from arsenic, belladonna and cyanide to strychnine, thallium and veronal with other chemical baddies like digitalis, hemlock and ricin, to name only few of the 14 in all involved in despatching people.
Harkup, who is herself a chemist and obviously a fan, writes that Christie’s knowledge of toxins was so detailed, along with their individual effects, symptoms and antidotes that not only was she often cited in serious pharmaceutical journals but also had her accuracy vindicated in 1975 when she received a letter written by a lady in South America. The letter writer said she had realised that she was witnessing the slow poisoning of a man by his young wife and recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning because she had read The Pale Horse. “Had I not read (it) and thus learned of the effects of (such) poisoning, X would not have survived,” she said.
However, if Christie was so impeccable in her accuracy then it must be said that so is Kathryn Harkup. Beginning with an initial survey of Christie’s books in general she then proceeds to deconstruct her various novels through a series of 14 chapters, each dealing with one type of poison and in which book or books it was used. She also follows almost the same format for each poison.
There is, for instance, the story of the poison along with its antecedents, discovery and possible applications, followed by how the substance acts on a human body and ultimately causes its destruction, then if there is an antidote, some real life cases and ultimately ending with how Christie dealt with that particular poison in her fiction.
In the process, Harkup also makes some shrewd observations about Christie. She mentions for instance that Christie was never into introspection and deep character analysis or development, which actually helped her concentrate on the mysteries of the murder and its resolution. At times, in fact, it seems almost as if only the poison possessed the deep characterisation which the other protagonists lacked!
Nevertheless, while this method of presentation may be conducive to a rigorous and disciplined approach, Harkup can’t help letting the scholarly chemist in her take over large tracts of the narrative structure. Meaning, although her accounts of Christie’s interaction with the poisons are fascinating reading with great depth of literary insight, her description of the toxicology reads too much like a textbook and, frankly, not of much interest to even the most informed lay reader. Like, what are we to make of this extract: “The human body has two types of cholinesterase enzymes: acetylcholinesterase (AChE) and butyrylcholinesterase (BChE). AChE acts almost exclusively on acetylcholine, and is predominantly found in the muscles and brain.”
Forget Miss Marple, even Monsieur Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells would have a tough time wrapping their brain around that.