“It’s quite easy, you know.”
“To get away with it.” He was smiling again—a charming, boyish smile.
—Murder Is Easy
As a pathology technician who worked in a mortuary, the question I’m asked most often is, “How on earth did you end up working with dead bodies?” The answer—that I’d wanted to do so ever since I was a child—rarely satisfies. But the reason for this early fascination is simple: I fell in love with forensic science after I fell in love with the books of Agatha Christie, books that I began borrowing from my local library when I was just eight years old. Coincidentally, Christie described me exactly via the twelve-year-old character Pippa in her 1954 play, Spider’s Web. When Jeremy Warrender, the house guest of Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, asks Clarissa’s stepdaughter, Pippa, what her favorite subject at school is, we’re told that her answer was “immediate” and “enthusiastic.” She says, “Biology… It’s heaven. Yesterday we dissected a frog’s leg.” The application of biology to crime can loosely be described as forensic pathology, and it’s something I was surprisingly aware of and enamored with from childhood.
Of course, Christie herself didn’t talk of “forensics”—it’s a relatively modern term. But every one of her stories is an expert tapestry of human observation and ingenuity, threaded through with the emerging sciences and detection methods of the era, and it’s this attention to forensic detail that really enthralled me at that young age. Included in her repertoire are mentions of fingerprints and document comparison, blood spatter analysis, trace evidence, and firearms. There is a proliferation of poisons—perhaps the weapon most associated with Christie’s books—since she spent time working as a dispenser in a pharmacy during both world wars and incorporated that knowledge into her fiction with immense success. Also, critically, every Christie detective story involves one—or more commonly several—dead bodies. For a curious child already fascinated with biology and pathology, these stories and their corresponding bodies were the perfect puzzles.
* * *
A quick synopsis of the chapters of Christie’s own life, for those who aren’t familiar, reads just as intriguingly as one of her books. She was born Agatha Miller in 1890 in Devon, UK, and became the world’s most commercially successful novelist, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. In 1952, she wrote The Mousetrap, a play that had the longest initial run in history. In fact, after sixty-seven years, the only thing capable of suspending performances of The Mousetrap was the coronavirus outbreak of 2020. In 1971, she was made a dame of the British Empire. However, before her incredible literary successes, she mucked in like the rest of the population during the First World War (as she did again in the Second) by working for her country as a nurse and then a pharmacist—roles that would become pertinent in many of her future stories. Some people are aware of the unfortunate end of the marriage to her first husband, Archie Christie, in 1926 and her subsequent disappearance. It hit international headlines at the time when, after eleven days, she was discovered in a hotel in Harrogate, suffering from possible short-term memory loss, although the incident remains somewhat of a mystery, and she didn’t mention it in her autobiography. Thankfully, her second marriage four years later, to the archaeologist Max Mallowan, was much happier and stayed that way until her death in 1976. This second union even inspired in Christie an interest in archaeology that provided yet another talent in her rapidly growing repertoire to be drawn upon in later books. And “drawn” is the operative word here; Max encouraged her to attend sketching lessons so she could record the finds at various excavations for posterity, and after meticulously cleaning and illustrating them, she became a bona fide member of the dig team.
Excerpted from The Science of Murder by Carla Valentine. © 2022 by Sourcebooks.
Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.
Despite creating such enduring sleuths as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie didn’t only author crime fiction. She also wrote six romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott (a pseudonym that remained a secret for nearly twenty years), several works of nonfiction, including her autobiography (published posthumously in 1977), and numerous short stories and plays.
But it’s evident that what Christie knew best was crime. She wrote sixty-six full-length whodunits in her forty-five-year career, along with a prolific number of short detective stories. She was the first person ever to receive a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and she was a founding member and president of the Detection Club in 1930—a society of crime-fiction writers whose members were required to follow rules about writing detective fiction specifically and swear an oath of allegiance on a human skull called Eric in a rather tongue-in-cheek ceremony.
I’m interested in the fascinating history of forensic science, and I’m an avid reader of murder mysteries. Agatha Christie’s books are the perfect combination of the two. Her desire for procedural accuracy and the developments in criminology and medicolegal sciences her writing tracks show clearly the progression of forensics into the field of study it now is.
* * *
The term medicolegal and the more archaic medical jurisprudence are designations that were once slightly more common than the word forensic we currently use, although they refer to almost the same topic. Medicolegal means “encompassing both medical and legal aspects,” so it specifically involves the medical sciences, while forensic means “relating to or denoting the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime.” Forensic also means “relating to the courts of law,” derived from the Latin forensis (“of or before the forum”), and law is really the focus here. In Roman times, someone accused of a crime would have to present their case before a group of individuals in the forum, just like in our courtrooms today. However, it seems that the word forensic has recently become synonymous with “careful investigation” or “in-depth analysis,” and it is used in a much broader context. I’m thinking here of headlines like “Forensic Analysis of Rugby Match between Wales and England” or “Forensic Examination of Egyptian Mummy.” Often the techniques talked about, particularly on television, can simply be described as in-depth, analytical, or scientific, and neither the rugby teams nor the Egyptian mummy are being accused of a crime.
Medicolegal was the preferred term before forensic science ascended as a subject in its own right, particularly once it had made its mark on popular culture. I studied forensic science at university when it was in its infancy as an educational topic before going on to assist pathologists during forensic autopsies for ten years. I subsequently moved on to repair and restore historical body parts in a museum setting, which requires a similar level of attention to detail as the autopsies did. This gives me a unique perspective of both the historical and modern practices of forensic science.
Currently, I conserve over five thousand anatomical specimens at Barts Pathology Museum in London. The subgroup of specimens known as the Medicolegal Collection consists of pieces of preserved human tissue illustrating such injuries as poisonings, gunshot wounds, and judicial hangings, the earliest dating from 1831. However, those specimens in the same subcollection acquired since 1966 became known as the Forensic Medicine Collection, the alternative name illustrating the more modern turn of phrase.
It’s difficult to say for certain when one description fell from the vernacular and others became more common, as there is certainly some overlap. However, it is possible to look at the timeline of criminalistics, or forensic science as we know it today, and see how the discipline developed—in some cases from as far back as the thirteenth century!—regardless of which name was used.
Perhaps one of the most famous names in modern forensic science is that of Dr. Edmond Locard (1877–1966), a French criminalist who established the first police laboratory in Lyon in 1910—not long before Christie began her illustrious writing career. At this point, it’s worth noting the difference between a criminalist and a criminologist, as the two words often appear in Christie’s works. A criminalist is more like what we’d call a forensic scientist nowadays, whereas a criminologist studies the psychology and sociology of crime and criminals, perhaps what we’d call a forensic psychologist. (In Christie’s books, Hercule Poirot, for example, seems to veer very much between the two.) In his childhood, Locard was an avid reader of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as was Agatha Christie, and later in his forensic career, he even wrote a book titled Policiers de roman et policiers de laboratoire (Detectives in Novels and Detectives in the Laboratory). He is responsible for formulating what is known as the fundamental tenet of forensic science, the simple phrase, Every contact leaves a trace. This basic rationale, now known as Locard’s exchange principle, expresses the fact that the perpetrator of a crime will inevitably bring something—some sprinkle or spray, some smudge or smear—into the crime scene. They will also leave with something from it, unbeknownst to them, and both can be used as forensic evidence. Christie was fully aware of this principle, whether she knew it as Locard’s or not, as she understood the concept of evidence linking killers to victims and to crime scenes.
Perhaps after Christie’s success in 1920 with her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, she wanted to further her research and picked up a brand-new copy of Locard’s book when it was published in 1922. It would have seemed made for her! She certainly could have even obtained a copy of the original French edition—a language she read in, although according to journalist Charles Osborne, she couldn’t speak it very well. It is notable that she uses the word trace in her stories after the publication of her 1923 novel The Murder on the Links—which is coincidentally set in France—but not before. In this book, about a suspicious death that occurs on a golf course while poor Poirot is trying to relax, the local detective assigned to the case, Giraud, is describing Locard’s principle when he says, “The men who carried out this crime were taking no chances… They counted on leaving no traces. But I’ll beat them. There’s always something! And I mean to find it.”
By the time Locard released his Traité de criminalistique (Treaty of Forensic Science) in 1931, the discipline of forensics as we now know it was born—early on in Christie’s career and during the “golden age” of detective fiction.
* * *
Because of her unique placement as a writer during extensive advances in medicolegal history and her meticulous attention to detail, the burgeoning science of forensics can be studied through Agatha Christie’s works. Christie is said not to have used real people as the inspiration for her characters for the most part, because they wouldn’t become real to her. She had to invent them because she needed them to do whatever she wanted them to do, a bit like puppets. If they really existed, she would have an idea of their character traits and thought processes, which might be quite at odds with how she wanted them to act in her books. She acknowledged this in her autobiography, talking about how steeped she was in that world at the time. That said, she was inspired by real-life stories and overheard conversations. As one author put it, “Her rich imagination was stimulated from studying newspaper reports of true-life crimes. Almost daily, distressing incidents of killing, vandalism, robbery, and assault provided inspiration for plots.” We can certainly see this in her books: the infamous Jack the Ripper case from 1888 was referenced several times in The ABC Murders, and the Great Train Robbery of 1963 inspired part of the plot of At Bertram’s Hotel, published only two years after the robbery, in 1965. Throughout her canon, she mentions well-known cases such as those of Edith Thompson, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, the “Brides in the Bath,” and Lizzie Borden, as well as more obscure crimes like the Brighton trunk murders and the Hay Poisoner. But if art imitates life, then life may also—horribly—imitate art, and this was the case when several sets of “alphabet murders”—similar to Christie’s fictional ABC Murders—occurred from the 1970s onward. First, in Rochester, New York, three preteen girls were sexually assaulted and strangled between 1971 and 1973. Each of the girls had first and last names that started with the same letter, and their bodies were discovered in towns that also began with the same letter—an uncanny parody of the methods of Christie’s ABC Killer, which saw Alice Ascher killed in Andover, Betty Barnard murdered in Bexhill, and Carmichael Clarke killed in Churston. The real-life Rochester victims were Carmen Colon in Churchville, Michelle Maenza in Macedon, and Wanda Walkowicz in Webster.
Then, coincidentally, across the country in California, more double-initial murders took place in 1977 and 1978 and later in 1993 and 1994. The victims, older women who were said to be prostitutes, were Carmen Colon (bizarrely the exact same name as one of the upstate New York victims), Pamela Parsons, Roxene Roggasch, and Tracy Tofoya.
In 2011, a man named Joseph Naso was arrested for the California crimes. He was a photographer and a native of New York who traveled between the East and West Coasts of America for decades. He was sentenced to death for the West Coast murders in 2013. DNA evidence didn’t support his involvement in the Rochester alphabet murders, so officially that case remains unsolved.
Similarly, in South Africa between 1994 and 1995, a series of murders known as the ABC murders was perpetrated by Moses Sithole. Within that short time period, Sithole killed thirty-eight people in a spree beginning in Atteridgeville, continuing through Boksburg and ending in Cleveland.
There is, of course, absolutely no evidence to suggest that these murderers were inspired by Christie’s works at all; although these killings have echoes of Christie’s plot, the perpetrators never named her as an influence. But this does show that real-life crime can certainly be stranger than crime fiction and that anyone who perhaps considers Christie’s work far-fetched and unrealistic might do well to delve into the world of true crime. And why not? As Poirot points out to Katherine Gray in The Mystery of the Blue Train, “Fiction is founded on fact.”
Conversely, some criminals unfortunately did name Christie’s books as a source of inspiration.
In 2009 in Qazvin, Iran, a thirty-two-year-old woman named Mahin Qadiri became Iran’s first female serial killer. She claimed she had been inspired by the books of Agatha Christie, which she read after they were translated into Farsi. She murdered five elderly women by drugging and strangling them, then stole their money and jewelry. According to an article by journalist Robert Tait, “Mahin in her confessions has said that she has been taking patterns from Agatha Christie books and has been trying not to leave any trace of herself.”
This certainly isn’t Christie’s fault, and she never wrote about anyone who utilized this modus operandi; if murderous intent exists within the hearts of men, they will find a way to carry it out, whatever the inspiration may be. Christie alludes to this herself in Evil Under the Sun when she quotes Ecclesiastes 9:3: “This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil.” But thankfully, with forensic science, we have the means to investigate evil.
* * *
When reading Christie’s books, I am always struck by the tremendous amount of forensic accuracy, which isn’t so surprising considering Sir Richard Attenborough—who was part of the original cast of The Mousetrap in 1952 and who later acted in a 1974 film version of And Then There Were None—described her as “a stickler for things being absolutely right.” He knew her for forty years and, presumably, very well indeed, so this character observation is valuable. Despite admitting to having little knowledge of the implements she often employed as murder weapons (apart from poisons), she researched enough to make her work believable and authentic. According to her husband Max Mallowan, Christie used to take endless trouble over getting her facts right. She would consult professional authorities on police practice, the law, and procedures in the courts. Perhaps she felt she had to be very accurate to avoid criticism. Tellingly, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (one of her later books, from the 1950s), Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s crime-writing character who appears in several Poirot books, says, “Sometimes I think there are people who only read books in the hope of finding mistakes in them.” Cathy Cook, the author of The Agatha Christie Miscellany, noted that “it gave her great satisfaction when a solicitor once wrote complaining of her ignorance about the law of inheritance. She was able to write back and demonstrate that the lawyer himself was outdated, that the law had been changed, and that her statement was correct!”
Christie also indicated in her writing that she was aware of the impact that her stories—and detective stories in general—could have on the layman’s knowledge of crime, in effect opening up this elusive science to a wider public, and her attempts to replicate crimes for her readers gave them a taste of what was previously privileged police knowledge.
In her short story “The Idol House of Astarte,” the character Dr. Pender laments the fact that he and a friend moved a dead body into the safety of the nearby house. He says apologetically, “One would know better nowadays…owing to the prevalence of detective fiction. Every street boy knows that a body must be left where it is found.” This is what we think of when we consider Christie stories: bodies. We imagine a woman’s pale, cold fingers curling up from an oriental rug on a library floor, a drained champagne glass lying next to her, her lips turning blue as her eyes slowly close. Or we envisage a man slumped forward over a crimson stain spreading slowly across the blotter of a mahogany desk, a silver blade sticking out of his back, reflecting the flickering firelight. Both of these vignettes are puzzles to be solved using investigatory methods and clues found at the scene.
* * *
Christie is said to have “abhorred violence,” and she wasn’t enthusiastic about detective fiction that included savagery and brutality. This may explain why she never gratuitously depicted the physical impact of murders in her books. In real life, she didn’t think she could personally look at a “really ghastly, mangled body,” and in her novels, she rarely described a corpse in gory detail. This doesn’t mean that she wasn’t capable of writing about it or that she never did. In her autobiography, she was very matter-of-fact about gruesome scenes she witnessed while nursing in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, including helping a new nurse dispose of an amputated leg and its associated blood and gore. In her authoritative biography of Christie, Laura Thompson elaborates on this with information from Christie’s own diaries. Describing an amputation surgery and the discarded limb that resulted from it, Thompson wrote that Christie said she had to “clean up the floor down there—and stuck it in the furnace myself.”
In her fiction, though, Christie’s deliberate avoidance of gory detail works in her favor, as she often only points out the salient features about the victim, leaving much to the reader’s imagination…which can sometimes be worse. In After the Funeral, one of the characters is violently murdered with a hatchet, and the injuries to her face are enough to make identification nearly impossible. In The Body in the Library, the corpse of a young female victim is burned beyond recognition after her murder, and in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, we have allusions to the disfiguring nature of decomposition on top of savagery. We can imagine the effects of these awful crimes without having to be told in detail the resulting injuries, and that in itself is enough to give us nightmares.
Christie’s investigations often start with anecdotes from witnesses, and some of her fictional murders are solved by the sleuth characters in the absence of a body. Sometimes the detective only enters the story days, months, or even years after a victim has been killed, and they solve the case retrospectively, avoiding any interaction with the body: typical “armchair detectives.” But often they do see a corpse at the scene of the crime. In fact—according to the game show Jeopardy!—Christie is credited as being the first person to ever use the phrase the scene of the crime (in The Murder on the Links, published in 1923, where it is even a chapter title). But perhaps even more impressive is her apparent prediction of the need for what many of us know as a “crime scene examiner’s kit” or “crime scene bag,” which is now such a staple in both fact and fiction, you could easily imagine they have always been employed. This isn’t true. In real life, it was eminent golden-age pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury—someone we’ll encounter frequently in this book—who noticed that even at the scenes of the most gruesome murders, police officers weren’t furnished with the basic protective equipment they required. They were removing chunks of human flesh from between paving stones with their bare hands and wiping up spilled blood with their personal cotton handkerchiefs. Items such as envelopes, tweezers, pots, and gloves—to be used to capture evidence and to avoid the officers as well as the scenes being contaminated—were often improvised and not available as standard. It wasn’t until 1924, following the appalling killing of Emily Kaye, known as the Crumbles murder, that things changed.
The Crumbles was a shingled beach on the coast of Sussex that was unfortunately the location of two separate murders. The first was the 1920 bludgeoning of Iris Munroe, when she was only seventeen years old, by two men with a motive of simple robbery. The second, four years later, was the more notorious gruesome slaying and dismemberment of the pregnant Kaye by her married lover, Patrick Mahon. What made the crime so sensational was the fact that Mahon stowed the body parts of Kaye in a trunk in one room of their bungalow and had the gall to invite another woman, Ethel Duncan, to stay at the bungalow with him over a long Easter weekend…while the various severed limbs were decomposing there. Christie referenced this case in Murder Is Easy, her 1939 book, although she calls it the Castor case: “You’ll remember the Castor case, sir—and how they found little bits of the poor girl pinned up all over Castor’s seaside bungalow.”
It was this grisly scene that inspired Spilsbury to introduce the “murder bag” that morphed into the kit used by crime scene examiners (CSEs), which contains all the typical investigation implements we’re now so familiar with: gloves, evidence bags, tweezers, sample tubes, etc. However, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles—published four years before the murder of Emily Kaye—Hercule Poirot appears to have a CSE kit of his own! He wanders about collecting evidence in “test tubes” and “envelopes” and states, “I will put down my little case until I need it,” showing that he even has specific apparatus for the purpose. At that time, it was a novel idea, if you’ll pardon the pun.
* * *
Although the crime scene is of utmost importance, there are many different aspects to forensic investigation. In Christie’s Towards Zero, solicitor and criminologist Frederick Treves laments the fact that detective stories begin with the murder, since he feels that is in fact the end of the story and not the beginning: “The story begins long before that—with all the causes and events converging towards a given spot…Zero hour. Yes, all of them converging towards zero.”
I want to try to honor the above quote with this book, insofar as forensic evidence goes. The story of a murder victim begins at the scene or scenes, and all the evidence converges toward the body—toward zero. Like an investigator who appears once the body has been removed to the mortuary, I will begin analyzing “causes and events” metaphorically at the scene of the crime, scrutinizing footprints, fragments of paper, and spent bullets. Only then will I arrive at the body to examine wound patterns, toxicology, and other artifacts noted at autopsy. Here we will experience the finale to our investigation—the denouement, the book’s conclusion: zero hour—which will tie all those forensic threads together into a neat little investigative knot.
Excerpted from The Science of Murder by Carla Valentine. © 2022 by Sourcebooks.
Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.