Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was written more than a hundred years ago. It remains one of her most popular works.
In the novel, members of an estate in Essex wake up one night, during World War I, to find the proprietor, Emily Inglethorp, convulsing to death from strychnine poisoning.
The novel introduced readers to the punctilious detective, Hercule Poirot. It also introduced a new form of murder. Very rarely, until its publication, had strychnine featured as a murder weapon in literature.
In Arnold Cooley’s A Cyclopædia of Practical Receipts (1846) and Robley Dunglison’s New Remedies (1839), strychnine is said to be extracted from the rectified spirit of wine. Both the Invisible Man and Emily Inglethorp suffered from insomnia. An admixture of diluted strychnine compounds acted as a cure for sleeplessness, in both cases, and thus as a spirit.
However, strychnine may not be the only spirit that inspired Christie’s first novel.
Death by strychnine
Its career as a poison is much shorter than that. “Having strychnine in your house today would be suspicious,” writes Kathryn Harkup, but it would not have been so back in 1920.
Strychnine acquired early celebrity in the hands of Dr Thomas Neill Cream. Cream was executed in 1892 for the serial-strychnine-murders of women in Canada and Britain. Allegedly, his last words were, “I am Jack the…”
Inglethorp’s death was not so different from any of Cream’s victims. Christie writes:
The convulsions were of a violence terrible to behold … A final [one] lifted her from the bed, until she appeared to rest upon her head and her heels, with her body arched in an extraordinary manner.
During her nursing-tenure at the Torquay War Hospital, at the time of the Great War, Christie had learned a great deal about chemicals, and conceived fabled prescription that led to Inglethorp’s death.
Accordingly, a mixture of potassium bromide added to strychnine sulfate left a precipitate of the free alkali to crystallise at the bottom of the container. Anyone consuming the crystallised grains of strychnine without shaking the contents ran the risk of instant cyanosis and asphyxiation.
Did Christie really pick up the idea from a pharmacy textbook as her hero Hercule Poirot does in the novel? Or did she gather it from the British Empire’s “autonomous networks of social communicators”?
‘S’ is for strychnine (and Savoy)
They stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Opened in 1902, the hotel had been built by an Irish barrister from Lucknow, Cecil D Lincoln. He gave the Savoy its spires, lancet-windows and Gothic architecture. The dining hall was varnished with flooring made of oak trunks. Billiard tables, grand pianos, cider and wine barrels, crates of champagne and Edwardian fixtures were lumbered up the mountain roads.
One of the two guests was a 49-year-old spinster, Frances Garnett-Orme. The other, Eva Mountstephen, her friend from Lucknow. Garnett-Orme was once engaged to a British officer from the United Provinces, who died before the wedding. In later life, she became a practitioner of séances and crystal-gazing, and sought to communicate with the dead.
One day Garnett-Orme was found dead upon her bed. The door of her room was locked from inside. Mountstephen had left for Lucknow that morning, but the facts of the case made her the prime suspect. Garnett-Orme’s autopsy revealed traces of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) in her blood.
The poison was believed to have been administered through her bottle of sodium bicarbonate, possibly tampered with by someone close to her. Mountstephen was brought to trial at the Allahabad High Court, before Justices Rafiq and Tudball. Due to a lack of evidence against her, she was exonerated. Within a few months of the acquittal, the doctor who had carried out the deceased’s post-mortem was found poisoned to death by strychnine.
The Ghosts of Savoy
Today the hotel is a heritage property and is believed to be haunted: the spirit of Garnett-Orme is said to still linger in the mansion.
Savoy’s Writer’s Bar, which the LA Times describes as “where Britain’s colonial elite once toasted their empire in Victorian splendour,” was the setting for the unforeseen intertwining of histories. The bar hosted writers from Jim Corbett, to Lowell Thomas, to John Masters (the writer of Bhowani Junction, who served for the Gurkha Regiment at Dehra Dun) to the Nobel Laurate, Pearl S Buck.
The hotel’s guests, including Garnett-Orme, have left behind their echoes in the lobbies of the hotel. Their spirits are said to haunt the place in supernatural manifestations. Apart from historical personalities, the hotel is haunted by tourists throughout the year.
The real ghosts, says Bond, “are those who manage to slip away without paying for their drinks.” Garnett-Orme or Inglethorpe were certainly not those.
The man who would be Poirot
In 1913, when the trial in the Garnett-Orme case was underway, Rudyard Kipling, another Anglo-Indian author, came to know of it. Although Kipling had left India, by 1890, he continued to have his sources. He had acquaintances in one Allen family, who told him about the case. They were owners of respectable newspapers and publications in which Kipling’s stories had appeared.
Kipling, by now a Nobel Laureate, pitched the idea to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the resident of 221B Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes. The scene is said to have occurred in the billard’s room of Doyle’s house, in Windlesham, Surrey, as confirmed by Peter Costello, in the book Conan Doyle, Detective (1991).
The sources Costello cites are the India Office documents and a Times report from October 1912. In some interpretations of the case, it appears that a lover-doctor had administered the poison into the lady’s bottle of cough-pills.
Bond later wrote a fictional narrative of the account, In a Crystal Ball: A Mussoorie Mystery (2007). In the story, Kipling writes to Doyle,
There has been a murder in India … A murder by suggestion at Mussoorie … one of the most curious things in its line on record. Everything that is improbable and on the face of it impossible is in this case.
In real life, Doyle took great interest in India. A part of The Sign of Four was set in the Andaman Islands. Yet he refused to write a story on the case from Mussoorie, for “the risk of libel.”
And here a new theory intervenes.
Bond claims that the case was then passed on to Christie, who used the details for The Mysterious Affair at Styles, changing the setting to Essex. If this is true, the question arises whether the man who became Poirot, could well have been Holmes himself, had Doyle not declined the case.
Around the same time, Christie’s friend and neighbour, Eden Philpotts, had offered to help her with her novel, Snow Upon the Desert. He showed it to his literary agent. But Christie had no luck then.
Philpotts who was born in Mount Abu, Rajasthan, was familiar with the India that Kipling knew. Philpotts was also a friend of Doyle. It is likely that he may have played the envoy for the passage of the case to Christie.
In the novel, Poirot tells Hastings, “a lady in England lost her life by taking a similar mixture,” as that which had poisoned Inglethorp. Poirot’s words are not his own, nor Christie’s. They were taken verbatim from Joseph Price Remington’s legendary treatise, The Practice of Pharmacy (1886).
Remington’s book had been in circulation for over a decade and half, when Garnett-Orme was murdered. There is uncanny similarity in the way she died and the death that Remington’s describes. Later, Christie devised nearly the same death for Inglethorp.
Did Christie conceive the fatal formula in Torquay, indeed? Or was it after hearing of Garnett-Orme’s case from Philpotts? Did Remington’s book only serve to provide her the chemical solution to a murder that she had already plotted in her mind?
These questions are clouded beneath the mist of the Mussoorie hills. And they will remain so, until more details about the death of Garnett-Orme are unearthed.