Caroline: Agatha Christie received a lot of accolades during her long writing career. She had fans all over the world, her books sold thousands upon thousands of copies and (mostly) received good reviews, and in 1971 she was made a Dame by the Queen for her services for literature. But one of her most prized compliments was actually in response to her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which was published in 1921.
“This novel has the rare merit of being correctly written,” a reviewer in the Pharmaceutical Journal declared. Since this was a whodunnit with a clever, unusual poisoning plot, Christie was very proud that it had been praised and her use of science endorsed by the prestigious academic journal published by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Unlike other crime novelists that littered their pages with so-called untraceable poisons and mysterious compounds, it seemed to suggest, here was a novelist who really knew her stuff when it came to chemicals that can kill people.
And indeed she did. Before Agatha Christie was a detective novelist, she was a hospital dispenser, and her experience in that role would go on to exert a great influence over her fiction for decades to come.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Agatha Christie wasn’t exactly groomed for a high flying career in science. Indeed, few women in Britain were when she was a teenager in the first decade of the twentieth century. University degrees for women were still hotly contested topic within higher education and women doctors had only really very recently won the right to qualify and practice medicine freely. Although her older sister Madge was sent away to school, Agatha was educated at home with her parents in Devon. According to Christie’s biographer Janet Morgan, her mother Clara had some rather esoteric ideas about home schooling, including the notion that children shouldn’t be taught to read until they were eight years old “since delay was better for the eyes as well as the brain”. It seems like she learned anyway, becoming a voracious reader from a young age, and learning arithmetic every morning from her father after breakfast. At the age of thirteen she had a brief period of attending a school in her hometown of Torquay two days a week, and then at fifteen she was sent to Paris for a year to be “finished”, but in nether case is it likely that she spent much time learning even the most general science, let alone chemistry.
But for Agatha Christie, as for so many women, the First World War changed everything. She was almost 24 when Britain entered the war in 1914, and so far marriage had seemed like the obvious and inevitable next step in her life. She was already engaged to a family friend, Reginald Lucy, when she met Archie Christie at a local garrison dance in October 1912. Their whirlwind romance superseded all her previous attachments and it was only the cautioning voice her mother that prevented them from getting married mere weeks after they met. During their two year engagement, Archie qualified as a pilot and joined the Royal Flying Corps, which meant that he was part of the first British Expeditionary Force and deployed to France as soon as the war began. Agatha joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Torquay and worked as a ward maid, scrubbing floors and helping the nurses and doctors care for the wounded soldiers arriving on boats from the Front. It was her first time working in a professional setting, albeit as a volunteer, and it exposed her to the daily working life of a hospital in a way she would never have encountered in peacetime. Agatha and Archie got married in Bristol on Christmas Eve 1914 while he was on leave, but he had to return to his unit almost immediately, and she returned to her hospital work. Although being busy and useful undoubtedly helped with the anxiety she felt at a very chaotic time, it seems like Agatha Christie wasn’t necessarily cut out for nursing.
Kathryn: She hated nursing, absolutely detested it. And so a friend suggested to her that she might prefer working in the dispensary, making up all of the pills and the potions that would be prescribed to the recovering soldiers.
Caroline: This is Dr Kathryn Harkup, a chemist and the author of A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. She wrote a whole book about just how accurate and extensive Agatha Christie’s knowledge of poisons was, and she’s also explored in detail how crucial this wartime period was for developing Christie’s interest in the topic. But before we get to that, it’s first worth understanding exactly what a dispenser is and how you might become one in 1915.
Kathryn: She had to study to do this. You don’t just, you know, stick your name on the list and you get the job. This is a very difficult, precise job. You have to know what you’re doing because this is the days before pre-packaged pills and your stock solutions and the rest of it. So she studied very hard. She studied theoretical chemistry. Also the practical side of actually making pills and lotions. So she had an awful lot of knowledge at her fingertips from this particular era.
Caroline: Being a dispenser in a big hospital at this time, like Christie, was really a very responsible and skilled job — it’s no wonder she had to pass exams before she was allowed to do it. Dispensers didn’t just reach for packets off the shelf and pass them over, they actually had to mix raw ingredients to create the medicines doctors wanted for their patients.
Kathryn: Well, they would receive the prescription from a doctor, much like you would take a doctor to this prescription to a chemist today. Except that it would just list the compounds and then you have to take them off the shelf, wipe them out and actually mix them in with other things so that they could be pressed into pills or they could be mixed with oils to make creams, or they could be dissolved into solutions to be so as tonics. So you had to know not only how much was an appropriate dose to give someone, you had to know what it mixed with so that you could make it into the appropriate formulation. But you also had to know what you couldn’t mix with it. So certain drugs could not be mixed together. Otherwise they would have a chemical reaction.
Caroline: While scientific knowledge was obviously extremely important to this work, there was also a subtler side to it.
Kathryn: One of the books that she studied for her exams was called The Art of Dispensing, and it really was an art. Not only was all this theoretical knowledge that she had to bring to bear, but there was a skill in making these pills so that they didn’t crack or they weren’t soft and mixing creams so that they wouldn’t separate. So it really was an incredible job, a difficult job to do. Not just from the safety aspects, but also from the know, from the aesthetics of it to make a product that people were willing to swallow.
Caroline: When Christie qualified as a dispenser, substances like arsenic, strychnine and thallium were still used regularly in medicines and she would have been familiar with their applications and their doses. Sometimes the smallest of margins lay between treatment and poison and she rather flamboyantly made this point in a poem she wrote at the time titled “In A Dispensary”, saying “Here is sleep and solace and soothing of pain – courage and vigour new: / Here is menace and murder and sudden death – in these phials of green and blue:”.
While it all sounds very exciting and dramatic to me as a lay person, what with the constant danger of accidental or even deliberate poisonings, Christie makes clear in her autobiography that work as a volunteer dispenser wasn’t often very thrilling. There was “hardly anything to do but sit around” in a room “surrounded by poisons”, she wrote. With her siblings and her mother, Agatha had always written stories while she was growing up, and at some point during her teens her older sister Madge challenged her to write a detective story of her own. This idea came back to her during her bored hours in the dispensary, and she decided to give it a go. Inspired, no doubt, by all the death filled bottles in close proximity, she settled on a poisoning plot and fixed on a retired Belgian policeman as her detective, who was in England as a refugee because of the war. She finished it in a burst of productivity while on a short holiday from her job at Dartmoor, and eventually sent it off to a few publishers. It was initially rejected and I think she forgot all about it. She had other things on as life restarted after the turmoil: Archie came home, the war ended, she had a baby, they moved into a flat in London, and so on.
But then in 1919 the publisher John Lane from Bodley Head asked her to come in for a meeting to discuss the manuscript she had sent in on spec two years before. Looking back with greater wisdom later in her career, Agatha felt that the contract she was offered wasn’t as lucrative as it could have been, but in 1919 she was just delighted that the book that she dreamed up in the dispensary was going to be published at all. In 1921, therefore, readers in the UK were able to buy the very first Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
After the break: the fashion in poisons.
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Agatha Christie’s life changed beyond recognition between 1920 and 1940. She found fame as a detective novelist after books like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express found readers all over the world. She got divorced from Archie Christie after her infamous disappearance in December 1926 — there’s more on that in episode four of this podcast. She travelled extensively on her own, and then met and in 1930 married an archaeologist called Max Mallowan. Her growing fortune enabled her to invest in property, including the Greenway Estate in Devon that is now preserved by the National Trust. Her daughter Rosalind grew up and got engaged to her first husband, the soldier Hubert Prichard.
The world changed immeasurably during that time too, of course, in ways both big and small. For our purposes today, one of the biggest changes concerned poisons. By the time the Second World War broke out, it was no longer quite so easy to wander into a chemist’s and buy a large order of arsenic, for instance. One of the major plot points of The Mysterious Affair At Styles — and don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler — concerns a forged signature on the poison register at the village shop where the deadly drug used to murder Mrs Inglethorp was supposedly purchased. That was no invention, Kathryn says — writing your name and address in a so called “poison book” was really all you had to do in the 1920s in order to be allowed to buy these substances.
Kathryn: It was just embarrassingly easy to get hold of this stuff. This way of tracking the sale of highly dangerous substances, it’s not exactly watertight. If you’re OK with killing people, you are OK with lying on a poison register and signing the wrong name and giving the wrong address or the wrong purpose for your purchase. I mean, it was a step in the right direction, but I really don’t think it hindered many people.
Caroline: Scientific and social advances in the next couple of decades saw arsenic and strychnine disappear from medicines and household cupboards, meaning that detective novelists like Christie had to adjust the way they used poisons in their books too. If it was going to remain plausible that these murders could actually happen among ordinary people in a recognisable version of real life, the fiction had to move with the times.
Kathryn: She was very up to date with this. And it was interesting that poisons that she might have used at the beginning of her career were less relevant later on. So you couldn’t just drop arsenic into the soup when she was writing in the late 60s because it wasn’t that easy to get hold of. Whereas in the 1920s, it was frighteningly everywhere.
Luckily, with her background as a dispenser, keeping up with the pharmaceutical was something Christie enjoyed doing — she collected medico-legal textbooks and sometimes corresponded with experts about ideas she had for new poisonings. After the outbreak of the Second World War, her husband Max was posted to North Africa with the Royal Air Force, and Christie was on her own in London. She volunteered again as a dispenser, and after updating her qualifications, worked at least two days a week at University College Hospital. A lot had changed since her first stint in the dispensary in Torquay. Lots more medicines now came prepackaged, so the art of creating pleasing pills was far less in demand, for one thing. Many treatments had moved on too, so this work allowed Christie to see first hand the new developments. As Kathryn points out in her book A is for Arsenic, the war was actually a tremendously productive period for Christie as a writer too. She completed 12 novels during this time, including several books with ingenious and horrifying poisoning plots, such as 1942’s Five Little Pigs.
The remarkable thing about Christie’s use of poisons, Kathryn says, is how very strict she was about getting the science behind them right. After all, she was writing fiction — how bad could it be if she altered a symptom or two because it served her plot better?
Kathryn: She almost never bent the rules regarding chemistry or science, which is an astonishing feat. And she is, I think, actually a remarkable science communicator because she can put across very accurate science in a very accessible, easy way that people just digest readily. So she is under no obligation, no crime writer is under any obligation to stick to the facts. This is fiction. You can make things up as you wish. But the fact that she almost never did I think is to her enormous credit. And I realise that there’s very, very few people like me who appreciate that. But it makes it so much nicer when we read the book and realise that, oh, my God, they did their homework. Oh, my God, this is really how it could happen.
Over the course of her career, Christie far preferred using poison as a murder weapon than, say, guns. She freely admitted that she knew very little about ballistics. She even ended up slyly apologising in a later novel via her detective novelist character Ariadne Oliver for an inaccuracy in the length of the blowpipe in 1935’s Death in the Clouds. But no such retrospective correction was ever required for her poisonings. Unlike, say, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie didn’t get a university degree or cultivate an intellectual reputation, but she did have her sphere of academic pride too. It’s really no wonder that she cherished that early review from the Pharmaceutical Journal. It was recognition from experts that she was an expert too.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/thedispenser where there will also be links to all the books and sources I mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear this podcast without advertising, as well as extra bonus episodes, you can become a paying supporter at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
I’ll be back on 15 April with another episode.