Strychnine and the Wild Surmise

All right. This might be a cheap shot. What follows is bizarre and kind of hilarious, but I do have a serious point.

Please comment or email and tell me what you think.

1921. The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie’s first murder mystery.

Upstairs, in a “fine old house” in Essex, Mrs Inglethorp dies of strychnine poisoning, surrounded by servants, relations and doctors. Christie describes the convulsions of strychnine poisoning and calls them “terrible” with a “peculiar violence”.

If you have a weak constitution, might be time to look away.

Let’s have a closer look at death by strychnine. Here’s a scene in London in the 1890s. A young woman has taken some pills.

“Her head and neck muscles go into a spasm … her facial muscles force the mouth into a hideous and exaggerated grin known as risus sardonicus. The whole of her face becomes liverish red. Another minute on sees her entire body taken over by convulsions as the spasms take over every muscle.

She lies there shaking violently. Suddenly her abdomen is forced upwards as her backbone arches, leaving only her head and heels touching the ground. Now she starts to slowly suffocate as her diaphragm becomes paralysed and stops her lungs working.

This is the horror of strychnine, the nastiest of poisons. It tortures its victim before allowing death to rescue them from their hell.” 

Hargreaves, Tony (2017), Poisons and Poisonings: Death by Stealth. Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry (p1)



You Have a Certain What??

After this has happened to Mrs Inglethorp, the doctor proclaims it to be “Very sad.”

Fair enough. But have a look at what happens next. The narrator is Captain Hastings.

We all trooped out into the corridor …  I was violently excited. I have a certain talent for deduction and Dr Bauerstein’s manner had started a flock of wild surmises in my mind. Mary Cavendish laid her hand upon my arm.

‘What is it? Why did Dr Bauerstein seem so – peculiar?’

I looked at her.

‘Do you know what I think?’

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1921. Chapter III

hastings eclectic ephemera.jpg

Maybe it’s just me …

After witnessing a death by strychnine, after standing helplessly by while a woman suffered like that, I don’t think I’d be surmising anything. I’d be a quivering wreck on the floor.


It’s probably not fair to laugh at the literature and conventions of the past, or to criticise as unrealistic something that never pretended to be anything else. The murder puzzles of the Golden Age obey their own complex set of rules and conventions. They take violent death and turn it into a puzzle. It’s easy to find scenes that are awkward and bizarre.

And even today crime writers write about death, surely the largest of events, sometimes a completely terrible event, and not always in a tone of high seriousness.

Miss Fisher Murder and Mendelssohn.jpg
The Phryne Fisher series is a delight. What do you think?

And even when the tone is serious, dark and thoughtful, aren’t we still using violence and tragedy in what is essentially a form of amusement?

Examining What We Do

Unsurprisingly, as a practitioner and a reader, I’m going to say I think it’s legitimate to write about death, even if we aren’t striving for strict realism.

After all, the murder mystery isn’t the only art form that deals in violence and death.

Death and Life Klimt Leopold Museum
“Death and Life” Gustav Klimt 1915, Leopold Museum

Underlying Profundity

I don’t think The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a stupid or trivial book. I think, even when the tone is light, there is an underlying profundity to stories about death.

There. You might not agree with that statement.

I also think it’s fine to write something that looks to genre conventions and provides simply an amusing puzzle. And some mystery novels can be a lot more than that. (There will be more about this in future posts).

Yes? No?

But I think we should be aware of what we are doing. It’s always enlightening to examine our pleasures and our cultural forms.

One thought on “Strychnine and the Wild Surmise

  1. Well said. And usually it’s what the reader reads between the lines which makes a good book. The biography The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris came in for criticism for non-factual content but it was what she left unsaid which spoke volumes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s