Kathryn Harkup: the secret poisons of Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie had most certainly one poison for every occasion. As her tally of “killings” in her novels reflects that a total of 100 killings out of 300 were committed by poison. As a former volunteer nurse in World War 1, Christie had gained extensive knowledge of her chemicals. No wonder she used them to good effect to eliminate her characters.

In her debut non-fiction book , A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie chemist Dr Kathryn Harkup reveals her passion and respect for the work of Agatha Christie.

In this blog post, Harkup shares some interesting trivia & lesser-known facts about Christie and her use of poison through her fiction series.

  • Christie used more poisons and more often than any other crime writer. Her toxic tally is over 30 different killer compounds. She killed over 300 characters, over 100 of them by poison. She consistently displays an impressively high degree of accuracy in her use of poisons.

    Kathryn Harkup

    Kathryn Harkup, author of “A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie”

Christie trained as an Apothecaries’ Assistant during WWI which made her very knowledgeable in chemistry as well as dangerous drugs and different prescriptions that were available. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written when she was working in a hospital dispensary, used three drugs to kill the victim (bromide powders, a narcotic and strychnine). She was complimented on her accuracy by a reviewer in The Pharmaceutical Journal, a review she was said to cherish above all others.

  • Her novel The Pale Horse used thallium, a very unusual poison. The plot was similar to some aspects of a real-life poisoning case, Graham Young who poisoned several of his work colleagues with thallium, and it was suggested Christie may have inspired him but he always denied it. But the novel may have saved two lives because the accurate descriptions of thallium poisoning symptoms alerted doctors to the true cause of a young girl’s mysterious illness.
  • Christie often used real-life murder cases as inspiration for her plots. Aspects of the Dr Crippen poisoning case appear in Ordeal by Innocence. The arsenic in the cake in After the Funeral is similar to the Marie LaFarge case. The suspected arsenic poisoning in Murder is Easy is very similar to the Armstrong case.

*This post was contributed by Dr Kathryn Harkup who will present her session at the Crime Writers Festival at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival on 15 January & on the 17 Jan at the Oxford Books store, Connaught Place, New Delhi.

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