Research for writers – my tribute to Agatha’s poison pen


Paula’s Post #107

This is going to be a quick one, because I’m on a roll. This week, I’ve got StoryMill and Scrivener both open (I’m more familiar with the former, but suspect the latter may ultimately prove more useful, – have to see if my 5writer colleagues can give me some tips).

Anyway,  I’m happily back in my “Writers’ World” dreaming up characters, themes, plot and subplots.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of my story, not just yet, but I did want to share with you that my efforts this week have reminded me just how much we hard working mystery writers owe to the fabulous  and oh so prolific Agatha Christie.

Can one say too much about Agatha?

I certainly don’t think so, though I suspect my 5writer colleague Joe may beg to differ. I don’t think Joe has ever really ‘gotten’ dear Agatha, though he is not alone in this, for neither has my husband.

And although I’ve posted of my love and admiration for Agatha before, now that I’m deep into researching my next mystery novel, I thought now might be the perfect time for a little refresher. A reminder about why I adore all things Agatha and in particular, a brief reminder of the massive contribution she made to the thousands of mystery writers who have followed in her enormous footsteps.

Ms. Christie set the bar high and her credentials, to my mind, bare repeating:

1. In a writing career that spanned more than half a century, Agatha Christie wrote eighty novels and short story collections and her works were subsequently translated into over 100 languages;

2. She is one arguably the worlds most prolific author, having sold over two billion copies. Pile up 2 billion books and according to Christie can lay claim to the largest number of published works in history right after Shakespeare and the Bible (and who really knows who wrote all those sonnets and plays, anyway?)

3. Agatha was (mostly) home-schooled but ended up in her education studying a succession of Parisian ‘finishing schools’ (appropriately chaperoned by her mother, of course);

“I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays and have things arranged for them that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.”

4. Amongst her many other gifts, in her teens, Agatha Christie studied classical musician (piano, mandolin and voice), but was said to be too nervous to actually perform in public. She later described her appearance in a youth production of the a youth production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Yeomen of the Guard) as “..One of the highlights of my existence” and claimed: “an experience that you really enjoyed should never be repeated.”

5. Her first attempt at a novel, Snow Upon the Desert, was set in Cairo which she visited with her mother when she finished her schooling. Written under the pseudonym Monosyllaba, she was upset when various publishers all declined to publish her efforts. Later, she also used another pen name, Mary Westmacott, under which she wrote six romances, apparently enjoying the change of pace from her wildly popular and in demand mystery novels.

6. In 1955, Christie was the first recipient of the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honour, the Grand Master Award (The Edgars, named for novelist Edgar Allen Poe);

7. More than thirty feature films have been based on her work.

8. Ms. Christie, (by then married to an aviator in the Royal Flying Corps) volunteered as a nurse during the first world war and qualified to work in the dispensary, an experience that helped her gain a very useful knowledge of drugs, medicine and poisons. Her first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduced her famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and details the death of a woman by strychnine poisoning.

9. While married to her first husband, Archibald Christie, the couple visited South Africa, where Agatha was introduced to riding ‘prone’ on a surfboard. Captivated, Agatha continued with surfing on the remainder of their world tour, learning ‘stand up’ surfing on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu;

10. She really had a ‘poison pen’ using poison to off more than 30 of her hapless victims in her many novels.

“Again with the poison,” I can hear you mutter. Well, yes. I must admit I’ve been on a bit of a tear about that lately.  In this regard, I must admit to more than a passing, if morbid, fascination with how much you can learn about poison and poisoners, just by googling.



(of a substance or plant) causing or capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body

“poisonous chemicals”

synonyms: toxic, noxious, deadly, fatal, lethal, mortal, death-dealing
“a poisonous chemical”
(of an animal) producing poison as a means of attacking enemies or prey; venomous.
adjective: poisonous
“a poisonous snake”
synonyms: venomous, deadly
“a poisonous snake”
extremely unpleasant or malicious.
“there was a poisonous atmosphere at the office”
synonyms: malicious, malevolent, hostile, vicious, spiteful, bitter, venomous, vindictive, vitriolic, rancorous, malign, pernicious, mean, nasty.

Why, I do believe I could actually write a whole novel based upon almost any one of the ‘synonyms’ listed above. And so could you.

Which one would you choose?

Suffice it to say, my fascination grows with each new google search. Check out, for instance:

The Poison Review or Debrorah Blum’s blog. Even more delicious, her fascinating Poisoner’s Handbook. And let’s not forget, HowDunit – The Book of Poisons or Joel Levy’s Poison: An Illustrated History.

Seriously, not all of us have been fortunate enough to have Ms. Christie’s pharmacological training. Most of us are forced to do more than a little ‘research’. And on that subject, I just wish you could of seen the look on my dear husband’s face when we discussed the prospect of having the postman, here in our small town of Gibsons Landing,  deliver the succession of books I’d like to order from Amazon in the weeks to come.

“Not before I first visit the local RCMP detachment and advise them to investigate thoroughly should something ‘untoward’ happen to me. At this point, he smiled and offered to fix me a gin and tonic, while I retreated into that fuzzy world of pre-writing musing over plots and characters, barely cognizant of that which I imbibed.


Oh my, what fun our Agatha must have had in her lifetime!

(Note: If, like me, you’d like to read more about Dame Agatha’s fascination with poisons, I commend to you Agatha Christie’s Methods of Murder, by Claire Reynolds, which can be found on the official home of the best selling author of all time. While there, you can also vote for your favourite “Christie”.

Oh, and if you’re truly a fan, rare first editions of the Mysterious Affair at Styles can be obtained at Jonkers Rare Books, Henley-on-Thames, OXON. You may wish to note that the novel was published first by the American arm of Christie’s publisher several months before the first true UK edition). Both for sale at Jonkers, though I fear you may need resuscitating upon observing the price, for you will find them most dear: an original UK copy in excellent condition is priced at 12,500 pounds. But don’t worry, with today’s exchange rates in your favour, that will still ring in at just under $20,000 USD.



2 thoughts on “Research for writers – my tribute to Agatha’s poison pen

  1. Well, what a coincidence! I’m currently re-reading the Christie canon. I last read them in high school and college, and it’s interesting to come back to them with a more “grown up” perspective—and with a mystery of my own underway.

    • How cool! Ill be interested to hear your impressions of Agatha’s series, and particularly her plotting, now that you have your own mystery underway – good luck!

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