A scream in the night. A tangle of clues. Befuddled police being led by the nose as a sharp-eyed and unlikely detective examines the evidence. The drawing room denouement. All these are, of course, well-known tropes of the classic murder mystery—a genre made famous in part by the queen of the sleuthing story herself, Agatha Christie.
Christie’s works are so engrossing, and enduring, because they manage to tread that thin line where the cozy mystery and the high-stakes whodunit meet. While readers are wrapped up in the fantasy of an English country home or hamlet, the imminent danger is truly spine-tingling. Somewhat less examined, however, are Christie’s reputation as a meticulous researcher of forensics, a field that was newly developing in the early 20th century, and her medical and pharmacological background. A perfectionist who volunteered as a nurse and pharmacist during World War I, Christie was businesslike about blood and gore, more than aware of the effects of certain chemicals on the body and keenly curious about the new scientific methods being used to investigate real-life murders. Her appetite for the crossroads of science and crime was so great, in fact, that she co-founded the Detection Club, a social club of crime writers who gathered for supper and lively discussions on murder.
In The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie, Carla Valentine, a longtime mortician, curator of a museum of Victorian pathology and voracious Christie reader, expertly moves through the study of fingerprints, toxicology, ballistics, blood spatter and wounds. (A memorable example: The practice of “gloving” involves the autopsist wearing the skin of the deceased’s hand like a glove in order to collect fingerprints.) Christie ignited Valentine’s own curiosity about the forensic sciences, and with the enthusiasm of the true fan, Valentine illuminates Christie’s meticulous genius by dissecting some of her most famous fictional murders and illustrating how both the crime and the solution are supported by science. It’s an engrossing read for any Christie lover, or simply any true-crime obsessive. However, a strong stomach is recommended; Valentine, like Christie, has no qualms about gore.
Of all the ways there are to kill a person, poison is the one most inextricably associated with Christie. Dispatching over 30 of her victims in this way, Christie was well versed in toxins from her wartime days in a pharmacy. In fact, she wielded her toxic substances with such descriptive accuracy that her novels have been used to detect symptoms of poisoning in real murder attempts. Author and toxicologist Neil Bradbury pays homage to this fact in his book A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them by opening three of his chapters with excerpts from Christie’s novels. All together, this is a book that Christie herself would have found excellent fireside reading material, as Bradbury devotes a chapter each to 11 major poisons used throughout history, including real-life murder cases in which they were used and, sometimes gruesomely, how they work on a molecular level to kill their victims.
Bradbury’s poisons run the gamut from the unexpected (insulin) to the gothically romantic (belladonna and wolfsbane). There’s even a section on polonium, the radioactive poison carrying a very famous victim count of one. Far from being dry molecular science, A Taste for Poison makes the reader horrifyingly aware of the devastating effects these substances have on the body’from corroding their organs to interrupting their essential electrical impulses to death. Yet it is with an excitement and love for his subject matter that Bradbury discusses these baneful materials, frequently reminding us that they are themselves blameless and often used in smaller doses to heal.
Christie’s murder mysteries were so steeped in science and so brilliantly complex that some think her novels were used as manuals to carry out attempts at the perfect murder. (Note: The would-be criminal masterminds failed in every known case.) Both Bradbury and Valentine seem to nod at this with their own warnings to readers who might use the knowledge their books impart to nefarious purposes. Forensic science will catch you, warns Valentine. Bradbury absolves himself in the appendix with a note informing us that his book is educational in nature and strictly not for the encouragement of murder. However, as Christie knew, the best murder is the well-researched murder. Happy reading.