Saturday 6 February 2016

Dark Brilliance: Agatha Christie, poisonous plants and murder mysteries By Daniel Pembrey

Agatha Christie lived close to Chelsea Physic Garden during the 1920s and 1930s and was almost certainly a regular visitor, so it seemed fitting that it should host the above-named event on Tuesday, 2nd February. It didn’t disappoint.

   Chelsea Physic Garden almost certainly counted Agatha Christie as a regular visitor
The speakers tried not to be too over-awed by the real star of the show, who couldn’t be there in person but who is now estimated to have sold nearly four billion copies of her novels. Christie was discussed in depth by novelists Rebecca Chance and Helen Smith, as well as scientist Kathryn Harkup whose book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie was recently published by Bloomsbury.

It's always great to talk Christie and poisons but it's even better when you have such enthusiastic and knowledgeable fellow panel members,” said Kathryn Harkup. “The audience were brilliant and came up with some very intriguing questions. A great night all round.”

(The following day, Kathryn was nominated for a prestigious Agatha Award in the Best Nonfiction category.)

A full house for the panel that featured Rebecca Chance, Kathryn Harkup and Helen Smith
Rebecca Chance made wide-ranging use of her knowledge of Golden Age detective fiction, showing how inventively Christie deployed poisons. “The audience was very enthusiastic and curious about the twin subjects of Christie and poison, with a sidebar to other Golden Age authors,” commented Rebecca. “We could have talked all night!” Rebecca also paid tribute to current leaders in the genre such as Val McDermid, whose Beneath the Bleeding got a prominent mention.

Taking a cue from Christie’s founding role in the Detection Club, Helen Smith talked about starting up BritCrime, the popular crime author collective. The panel was honoured that Jane Isaac, a BritCime author, had travelled from Northamptonshire to be there.

Helen Smith also emphasised the importance of settings in both Christie’s stories and her own. “The Chelsea Physic Garden was the perfect location to discuss Agatha Christie and poisons,” she said. “I'm always looking for inspiration for inventive ways to murder people in my Emily Castles mystery series. Poison is a very useful murder weapon because there's no need for physical strength to administer it, so its use casts suspicion on the widest number of suspects. The lively discussion generated plenty of ideas for future books.” 

The speakers agreed that central to Christie’s enduring appeal was her plotting, but also noted both the darkness of her writing and, contrastingly, her sense of humour. The audience asked plenty of questions at the end, particularly on the relative advantages of different poisons. A gastronomic theme emerged. How much garlic does it take to kill someone? What about potatoes? 

A full twenty minutes of audience Q&A followed … and! … Rebecca Chance found her light
With that in mind, the panel members retired to a local pub afterwards. Curiously, the private dining room that they were shown into bore a striking resemblance to the set of And Then There Were None …Thankfully the food at The Coopers Arms was excellent and everyone returned home safely.

It was a magical and authentic evening, the more so as Abi Onatade (@Abi_Spks), Caroline Raeburn (@RaeburnCaroline), Claudia Clare (@ClaudiaCeramics), Ian Patrick (@imdambassador), Jeanette Hewitt (@jmhewitt), Joy Kluver (@JoyKluver) and No Exit Press were there too. Here’s hoping for other such events, soon!

Daniel Pembrey moderated this event, which forms part of an ongoing series, the next one being a Salon littéraire at the Luxembourg Embassy in London on May 12th featuring the (currently) Luxembourg-based crime writer Ruth Dugdall.

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