Poisons like cyanide or belladonna may seem like the stuff of novels. But before Agatha Christie became the world's best-selling mystery writer, such toxic compounds were, for a time, part of her everyday life—and literary inspiration.
Image: Agatha Christie, depicted on a plaque in Torquay, the seaside city in Devon, England, where she grew up. Violetriga/via Wikimedia Commons
For most of the First World War (1914–1918), Christie worked in a hospital as a nurse and later mixing medicines, as she recalled in her autobiography. "It was while I working in the dispensary that I first conceived of writing a detective story," wrote Christie (1890–1976).
At the time, she was a young married woman living in Torquay, in Devon, England. Her husband was away at war, and the downtime offered in the dispensary meant that she had a bit of time on her hands. "I began considering what kind of a detective story I could write," she said. "Since I was surrounded by poison, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected."
At least 28 of Agatha Christie's 66 mystery novels feature poisonings. Her work is featured in The Power of Poison, now open. © AMNH/R. Mickens
Indeed, Christie's journals of the time include descriptions of the "appearance and properties of various substances, the source from which they may be derived, their active principles and the substances with which they are incompatible," according to a biography of Christie by Janet Morgan. "She made lists of substances to be recognized; 'Extract of Ergot liquid: smells of bad meat extract; Collodium: smells of ether—white deposit round cork.' There were notes on alkaloids, italis, morphine, etc. with recommended doses."
During Christie's time in the dispensary, she also studied with one of the principal pharmacists of Torquay, who had the kind of deceptively bland yet sinister demeanor that some of Christie's villains also embody. At one point during the training, the "pharmacist took from his pocket a [dark-colored] lump…and asked whether she knew what it was: 'It's curare," he said," according to Christie's autobiography. "'Know about curare? Interesting stuff, very interesting. Taken by the mouth, it does you no harm at all; enter the bloodstream, it paralyses and kills you…do you know why I keep it in my pocket?' he asked."
Agatha Christie learned about "curare" as a young woman from a deceptively bland pharmacist. The general term for a variety of toxic substances, curare is made into a paste from the boiled and strained roots, bark, stems, and leaves of any of several tropical trees, vines, and plants. The paste is stored in various types of containers, including clay pots like this one, which you can see in The Power of Poison. © AMNH/D. Finnin
"'No,' Christie replied."
"'Well, you know,' he said thoughtfully, 'it makes me feel powerful.'" Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduces sleuth Hercule Poirot, includes a murder by—spoiler alert—poisoning. And in many of her subsequent books, she also relied on poison to propel the plot.
Learn more about poison in literature and in Agatha Christie's work, and see a curare pot, and blowgun darts and quiver in The Power of Poison, now open.