Agatha Christie: Murder Mystery Comet with a True Crime Tail

Agatha Christie, author of Murder on the Orient Express. Mario Breda, Agatha Christie,

Agatha Christie and the Orient Express. (c) Mario Breda,

Agatha Christie — she wrote murder mysteries; we all know that. But this is probably what you didn’t know: Agatha Christie was also a pharmacist and the medical descriptions in her books were so accurate they actually saved lives. They even helped a solve real murders. I usually only blog about true crime, but for Agatha Christie I’m making an exception. Her books were so good they spilled over into real life. She’s a murder mystery comet with a true crime tail.

Hercule Poirot was Christie's first detective.

Hercule Poirot was Christie’s first detective. Pixabay.

Agatha Christie, author and pharmacist

Not long before she became an author, during World War I, Agatha Christie trained as a nurse and then a pharmacy assistant. Two years later, she published her first murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). It introduced Hercule Poirot and featured a death by strychnine poisoning. A number of her following books centered on poisonings.

Thirty-eight books later, when World War II interrupted her life, and Christie stopped writing and worked in the pharmacy of the University College Hospital in London. She started publishing again the year before the war ended. In the end, she published more that 65 detective novels.

Agatha Christie monument

Agatha Christie monument, Pixabay.

The pharmacist’s poisons

So many of those novels featured poison they attracted the attention of Uwe Künzler, a pharmacist in Berlin. He published an academic article about the poisons in Agatha Christie’s novels in 1999. Two years later, a German forensic pathologist, Benno Rießelmann, followed suit with a manuscript about Christie’s poisonings from a forensic, pathological, and toxicological perspective. And across the ocean, a pharmacist in Texas published an entire book on the topic, The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie, in 2011. His book features a 76-page list of all the compounds involved in Christie’s plotlines and analyses the 30 poisonings in her books.

Poison, one of Christie's most popular murder weapons.

Poison, one of Christie’s most popular murder weapons. Pixabay.

Poisons and medicines, that became poisons in Christie’s hands

Here are some of Christie’s most popular poisons, just to give you a (literary) taste:


A toxin from the monkshood plant. It appears in two of Christie’s novels.


A highly poisonous chemical element. Arsenic appears in no less than nine of Christie’s books.


Atropine isn’t a poison, but rather a medication used to treat several different kinds of poisonings, such as from pesticides. Agatha Christie uses it as a plot point in two of her novels.


Barbiturates are sedative drugs that can produce death in an overdose. They’re featured in thirteen of Christie’s murder mysteries.

Chloral hydrate

Chloral hydrate is a sedative and hypnotic drug, but don’t overuse it! In the hands of the wrong person, it can become a murder weapon, as three of Christie’s novels show.


A stimulant and popularly abused drug, cocaine appears in two of Christie’s books.


Derived from the foxglove plant family, digitalis became popular as a medicine for heart patients, but its popularity has been declining due to safety concerns. Agatha Christie employed digitalis as a murder weapon in six of her novels.


An opiate and well-known pain medication, morphine becomes a poison in Christie’s hands. She features this drug in seven books.


This drug derives from the African Calabar bean. Missionaries in what is now Nigeria noticed that people there used the bean as an ordeal poison to test defendants accused of witchcraft. Curious, the missionaries sent the beans to Great Britain, where physostigmine was isolated. Although highly poisonous, it does have some medical applications. Christie featured this unusual drug in two books, including Poirot’s last case.


A cardiac medication similar to digitalis. Just don’t use too much, like the murderers did in two of Christie’s novels.


We all know this one. This colorless, odorless compound is a common ingredient both in rat poison and murder mysteries. Christie employed strychnine in five of her own mysteries.


Thallium is a metal and chemical element. It used to be popular as rat poison, but many countries have prohibited it due to its popularity as a murder weapon. Christie used it only once, in The Pale Horse (1961), but this one plotline had the most impact on the real world. Her book helped solve real murders and save several lives.

Poisoned powder -- Whodunnit?

Poisoned powder — Whodunnit?, Pixabay

The Pale Horse and poisoning cases

Copycat crimes have always been an unwanted side effect of murder mysteries. Someone might get an idea from a book and try it in real life.

On the flip side of the coin are “copycat” detectives and health care practitioners, who read an accurately-written novel like Agatha Christie’s, learn something from it, and employ that knowledge in real life. That’s precisely what happened with The Pale Horse. It contains an in-depth discussion of thallium poisoning symptoms – vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and nervous symptoms such as lethargy, numbness, black-outs and slurred speech. Some readers put that to good use.

In one case, a 19 month-old girl whose illness the doctors couldn’t diagnose owes her life to a nurse who had been reading The Pale Horse. She was admitted to the hospital, where a nurse told the attending physician she recognized the symptoms from Agatha Christie’s book. Testing confirmed thallium poisoning and the child could be saved. Her parents had been using thallium sulfate to kill cockroaches at home.

Smoking poison

ADragan,Smoking poison,

The Pale Horse and true crime

But it wasn’t just accidential poisonings the book solved. Ten years after the publication of The Pale Horse, in 1971, Bovingdon, Hertfordshire experienced a spate of poisonings. Workers at a  photographic equipment company fell ill; two even died. Two things alerted law enforcement to thallium poisoning. One worker suggested it to a visiting health inspector, and the forensic pathologist on the case had read The Pale Horse and recognized the pattern. The pathologist was even able to find the metal in the ashes of one of the cremated victims by means of atomic absorption spectrometry. The perpetrator turned out to be Graham Young, the worker who had suggested thallium poisoning. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1975, The Pale Horse helped crack another case. A woman in South America wrote Agatha Christie a letter. She recognized thallium poisoning in a woman whose husband had been trying to poison her. “Of this I am absolutely certain,” she wrote, “that X, had I not read The Pale Horse, wouldn’t have survived.”

Why true crime fans should read Agatha Christie

True crime fans are wont to complain about crime fiction. At the top of their list is inaccuracy. Inaccurate scenarios in the fields of medicine, police procedure and courtroom procedure turn off readers who have some knowledge of those fields. But if you, as a true crime fan and want to select a murder mystery, let it be one of Agatha Christie’s. She’s so accurate she’s made her mark on the real world of true crime.

Miss Marple, one of Agatha Christie's detectives

Lazarenka Sviatlana, Miss Marple,

Have you read any of Agatha Christie’s books? If so, which ones? And what did you think?

Literature on point

John Emsley, “The poison prescribed by Agatha Christie: Thanks to the mystery writer, the deadly properties of thallium sulphate have become common knowledge,” Independent (20 July 1992).

Michael Gerard, The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie (Univ. of Texas Press, 2011)

Uwe Künzler, “Mit Arsen und Schwesternhäubchen. Aus der Giftküche der Agatha Christie,” Deutsche Apothekezeitung (1999)

Agatha Christie Limited, “The Pale Horse,” The Home of Agatha Christie (2009).

Benno Rießelmann and Volkmar Schneider, “Giftmore in den Kriminalromanen von Agatha Christie – Anmerkungen aus rechtsmedizinischer und toxilogischer Sicht” (manuscript, 2001).

Meghan Ross, “5 Pharmacist Facts about Agatha Christie,” Pharmacy Times (2015)

Sächsiches Apothekenmuseum Leipzig, Arzneimittel in todsicher Dosis: Die Pharmazeutin Agatha Christie (2003)

Read More

Enduring Allure of Jack the Ripper

An Interview with Ripperologist Richard Jones


Richard Jones is a world-renowned Jack the Ripper expert.

Richard Jones, a world-renowned Jack the Ripper expert. Courtesy of Richard Jones.

Jack the Ripper: What makes the case so fascinating? Some people say it’s the Sherlock Holmes aspect: a riddle and investigation methods everyone can follow. Other people say it offers a window into the history of everyday people like no other genre can. And others say it’s just good old Victorian fear.

How does a “Ripperologist” and Jack-the-Ripper tour guide in London view the case?

One of best-known “Ripperologists” (experts on Jack the Ripper), Richard Jones, joins us today for an interview. He’s been conducting tours of the darker side of London history since 1982, most notably with a nightly Jack the Ripper walk around the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Jones has written several books on the Whitechapel murders (Uncovering Jack the Ripper’s London and Casebook Jack The Ripper) as well as books on Charles Dickens (Walking Dickensian London) and on the myths legends and ghosts of the British Isles. He has also written and produced a documentary on the case “Unmasking Jack the Ripper) and have appeared on several History and Discovery Channel programmes discussing the Whitechapel murders and Victorian crime.

For other posts on Jack the Ripper suspects, see Francis Thompson as a Ripper Suspect: An Interview with Richard Patterson and By the Hand of Another: Jack the Ripper’s Victims.

You are an internationally acclaimed expert on Jack the Ripper. How did you get started?

My start in the field of Ripper studies came about quite by accident. In 1982, I started doing tours of London, mostly angled towards the history of the City. In the course of my research, I began exploring the streets of Whitechapel and, inevitably, the Jack the Ripper case kept cropping up.

To that point, I honestly knew very little about the case. But, on looking into it and visiting archives and libraries, I suddenly realised what a wealth of social history the case actually afforded. From that point on I was hooked.

What does historical true crime offer as a genre that you can’t get in modern true crime books?

It struck me at the time I started researching the tours, and it is something that still fascinates me today, that for a brief period in 1888 the attention of the World’s media was focused on a very small part of east London, and the newspaper reports of the people in that area – police, members of the public, and, of course, the victims – are there for us to look at and read, thus affording us an unrivalled opportunity to almost go back in time and live the terror of the crimes as that terror evolved.

So, in short, researching historical true crime and exploring original sources make us eyewitnesses of long ago events.

Page one of the Dear Boss letter, which has been mistakenly attributed to Jack the Ripper.

Dear Boss letter, page 1. Public domain.

Tell me one thing about Jack the Ripper most people don’t know.

He never existed!

There was most certainly a serial killer – in fact, there were probably several serial killers – in London in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. But the name Jack the Ripper was actually unrelated to these, as it was, in fact, the signature on the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, which was sent to a London news agency in late September 1888.

The police made the mistake of releasing this letter to the public and the newspapers gave it wide circulation, to the extent that, by the end of October, 1888, and into the modern age, the man responsible for the crimes became known as the none existent killer “Jack the Ripper.”

Page 2 of the Dear Boss letter contains the infamous "Jack the Ripper" signature. Public domain.

Page 2 of the Dear Boss letter contains the infamous “Jack the Ripper” signature. Public domain.

Are there any common misconceptions about Jack the Ripper?

Sadly, there are many misconceptions about the Ripper. However, perhaps the most persistent one is the image that we have, thanks largely to film and television portrayals of him, as wearing a top hat and swirling cape and carrying a shiny black bag.

The real murderer, whoever he (or she) was, would have been someone who fitted into the district in which the murders were committed.

This folklore image of The image of Jack the Ripper with a swirling cape and top hat is nothing more than folklore.

This folklore image of The image of Jack the Ripper with a swirling cape and top hat is nothing more than folklore. Image by Dave Scar, Shutterstock.

In your opinion, can the case ever be solved this late in the game?

Unless some long-lost documents or evidence turn up then I don’t think that the case can now be solved. Virtually all the police evidence has long since disappeared or been destroyed, So, from the perspective of suspects the police at the time might have had, we are dependent on the, often contradictory, recollections, musings and memoirs of police officers in their retirement.

Has any new evidence been discovered in the past 50 years?

With DNA testing on an alleged shawl of one of the victims, the case has entered the age of modern criminology. The methodology used on the shawl has been subject to debate.

With DNA testing on an alleged shawl of one of the victims, the case has entered the age of modern criminology. The methodology used on the shawl has been subject to debate. Image from Pixabay.

“New” evidence is discovered on an almost yearly basis. Whether it is useful or accurate evidence is debatable. The most recent example of this is the excitement generated by the DNA on Catherine Eddowes supposed shawl. The newspapers had a field day with this, announcing that DNA had finally solved the mystery. But, unfortunately, it had done no such thing.

Firstly, the testing methods were questionable.

Secondly, it is doubtful that it was a shawl, and it is almost certain that Catherine Eddowes possessed no such garment, since the City of London Police, in whose jurisdiction her murder occurred, logged every item that was found in Mitre-square (the scene of her murder) and they make no mention of a shawl being present at the murder scene.

Finally, even if we do accept that the shawl was a shawl, that it did belong to Catherine Eddowes, and that the DNA of Aaron Kosminski was found on it, it wouldn’t prove that he was the murderer, simply that his he had had contact with her.

Do you have a favourite suspect? Who? Why?

My “favourite” suspect is Michael Ostrog. Not because I think that he was Jack the Ripper, but because he almost certainly wasn’t.

We have an almost complete record of his criminal career from the mid-1860’s right through to the late 1890’s and he was a lot of things – a conman, a cheat, a fraudster – but he was most certainly not homicidal.

He, therefore, demonstrates an important point about Ripperology – that it is possible to build a case against anybody and make it seem plausible.

As for a favoured suspect, I would have to go with Aaron Kosminski. not because of the DNA evidence, but simply because he was the favoured suspect of the two highest ranking officers on the case, Robert Anderson and Donald Swanson, and since they knew the evidence against all the suspects at the time, we have to take their opinion seriously.

Of course, we have the problem that we don’t still have any of the evidence that led them to their conclusions.

Just what is it about this case that makes it so intriguing?

By 1889, a period newspaper was already poking fun at the number of suspects.

By 1889, a period newspaper was already poking fun at the number of suspects. Tom Merry, Puck, 21 Sept. 1889, public domain.

I think that it remains unsolved is what makes the case so intriguing. Plus, it was long enough ago to make it “safe” .i.e, we are not directly threatened by it. Also, it gives us that window through which we can look back on an intriguing period in Victorian history and in police and criminal history.

What do you offer on your Jack the Ripper Tour?

Our Jack the Ripper tour is conducted almost along the lines of a Crime Scene Investigation. Participants are encouraged to question things, to discuss things and to form their own opinions about the case. It is, accordingly, done at a relaxed pace, with plenty of interaction between the walkers and the guide.

How can we book a tour with you?

It is best done through our website.

That sounds like fun! Thanks for joining us, Richard Jones.

Read More
error: Content is protected !!