Raicho Raichev is not only a fan of Golden Age Mysteries, he’s a scholar of the genre. He’s written previous articles for this site about some of the key figures in the field. This time he focuses on the murder method in many Golden Age whodunits: poison. Raicho is one of the best current writers of the classical mystery. His series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, has more than half a dozen critically acclaimed novel-length entries as well as many short story cases, most of them published in EQMM. We have a new Antonia Darcy story coming up early next year.—Janet Hutchings
P.D. James, in her Introduction to the 1998 Folio edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, writes that the novel has “a particularly original and ingenious method of murder and one, which, as far as I remember, has never been used by another crime writer.” The method in question involves the introduction of arsenic (via a tiny funnel) into a deliberately cracked egg that is subsequently used for the making of a sweet omelette which is shared by the killer with his victim. The reason the killer remains unaffected is that he has been carefully building up his own immunity to arsenic by taking small doses over a period of time. As murderous modi operandi go, this one is so elaborate, dangerous, and risky as to be wildly improbable, though of course it is typical of the Golden Age (of the English detective story) during which the book was written. In fact the shared-death method might have been devised by the novel’s heroine Harriet Vane herself—a detective story writer and, as is widely assumed, an idealized self-portrait of Dorothy L. Sayers. In an entertaining metafictional touch Harriet—who stands accused of the murder of her lover—tells Lord Peter that it all feels like one of her own novels, “. . . in which I invented such a perfectly watertight crime that I couldn’t devise any way for my detective to prove it . . .”
Strong Poison was published in 1930 and is the fourth in the series featuring Sayers’s sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. For most Sayers aficionados* the novel’s real distinction lies in the extraordinary transformation—some may call it “humanization”—of Lord Peter who, beneath his Bertie-Wooster exterior and silly-ass manner, is revealed as harboring passions worthy of a Mr Darcy. One cannot imagine a less auspicious occasion for a man to succumb to a coup de foudre than a murder trial, but that is what happens to Lord Peter Wimsey. He falls in love with the woman in the dock while listening to the judge sum up the damning evidence against her. He is convinced—absolutely, unshakably, unconditionally—that Harriet Vane is innocent. At that point Lord Peter hasn’t any proof that that might be so, apart from what his heart tells him and the fact that his mother, the Duchess of Denver, agrees—as he informs Harriet at their first meeting. (“Oh my mother’s the only one that counts, and she likes you very much from what she’s seen of you.”) We learn that when Harriet “smiled at him, his heart turned to water.” Henceforward he devotes all his time and energy—as well as every advantage his status as a peer of the realm affords him—to saving her from the hangman’s noose. In the course of his investigation he offers her marriage.
But Baroness James seemed to have remembered wrongly. Ten years after Sayers, another crime writer—Agatha Christie, no less—employed the shared-death method in her novel Sad Cypress. Although a meticulously clued Poirot case, this 1940 offering is not a typical Christie. For one thing, the identity of the killer is fairly obvious at an early stage, which for an Agatha Christie novel written in her floruit period is very unusual. Crime critic Robert Barnard describes Sad Cypress as “elegiac, more emotionally involving than is usual in Christie.” The killer—Nurse Hopkins—puts morphine into a pot of freshly brewed tea which she then shares with her victim. Her way of staying alive is by means of an apomorphine injection she gives herself moments after imbibing the poison. (Apomorphine is a powerful emetic and it causes her to vomit the morphine.)
Apart from the murder method, there are a number of other striking similarities between Strong Poisonand Sad Cypress. Both novels open with a tense courtroom scene. Both feature an attractive, sympathetically presented woman who is wrongly accused of murder. The murder motive in both novels is money though the murderer’s right to inheritance is carefully veiled. Both Sayers and Christie use the very first impression their murderers make in such a way as to prepare the reader for the eventual revelation of their guilt. Norman Urquhart’s face strikes Lord Peter as “pale and curiously clear”—the denouement reveals that luminous clarity is characteristic of the skin of a habitual arsenic eater. Nurse Hopkins is introduced through the eyes of her scapegoat, a delirious Elinor Carlisle, who sees Hopkins as “smug—smug and implacable”—note the cunning repetition of “smug”—Agatha Christie as good as tells the reader, this is a woman who believes she’s got away with murder. Both murderers are easy to spot since the circle of suspects in the two novels is so very narrow, therefore the question that tantalizes the reader is How?** rather than Who?
Did Agatha Christie appropriate some of Dorothy Sayers’s ideas after reading Strong Poison? Or was it a case of what is known as “parallel thinking”? While extraordinary coincidences are known to happen there is one singular detail in Sad Cypress which suggests that Christie was not only familiar with that particular Sayers but that she might be paying some kind of droll homage to her sister in crime. In Strong Poison, it is Lord Peter who gets the girl in the end, or rather starts romancing Harriet Vane.*** In Sad Cypress, the young man who is paired off with Elinor Carlisle after her release is a friend of Hercule Poirot called—now pay close attention—Peter Lord.
Or was Agatha Christie’s subconscious playing her tricks?
* Most but not all. Apparently there are GA purists who regard Harriet Vane as a Wallis Simpson kind of figure who lured Lord Peter away from the path of pure detection.
** Sayers much more often than Christie devised bizarre, if not exactly practicable, murder methods. In her Busman’s Honeymoon the killer sets a booby trap with a weighted cactus pot on a chain, which is triggered by the victim’s opening a radio cabinet; the murder in Unnatural Death is brought about by the injecting of a lethal air-bubble into the victim’s vein, etc.
*** Lord Peter’s proposal is finally accepted by Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night (1935) and in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) we see them married.