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Agatha Christie: The Criminalist Pioneer

Written by Carla Valentine, author of Murder Isn't Easy

The word ‘forensic’ probably conjures up images of scientists in white coats or onesies, squinting down microscopes, swabbing DNA, or collecting tiny pieces of evidence with tweezers. Perhaps unlikely to be associated with such a precise, sterile science are the ‘cosy’ whodunits penned by Agatha Christie. However, over the last few years, I’ve discovered that Agatha was indeed a forensic pioneer; perhaps not so surprising since we know she rocked a lab coat, and was capable of mixing dangerous chemicals, during her stints as a wartime pharmaceutical dispenser.

Although the term ‘forensic medicine’ was used as early as the 18th century in one publication, ‘forensic science’ was not. Agatha Christie would therefore not have considered herself to have an interest in forensics, but more likely ‘criminalistics’ or anything considered ‘medicolegal’. In the museum I work at, for example, the Medicolegal Collection - consisting of preserved human tissue illustrating injuries resulting from poisons, gunshot wounds and other murders - dates from 1831, but in later years - around the 1950s and 60s - becomes the Forensic Medicine collection, with a little overlap on dates. They’re all essentially the same thing.

I first started to think seriously about writing my book Murder Isn’t Easy: The Forensics of Agatha Christie while perusing this very website. I happened across a little piece of interesting information: according to the game show Jeopardy!, Agatha Christie is credited as being the first person to ever use the phrase ‘the scene of the crime’ in her 1923 book The Murder on the Links. I found that fact absolutely fascinating given that I’d studied Forensic Science at university and the phrase is now synonymous with factual criminal investigation - yet I’d never heard the Christie connection before in my life. The idea that an author of fiction could contribute to the landscape of current forensic science appealed to me as a forensic practitioner and avid reader of crime procedurals and whodunits. It wasn’t an entirely new phenomenon: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had achieved something similar with his Sherlock Holmes stories, and I knew Agatha was a fan of them; as was I. However, Conan Doyle based his character of Sherlock loosely on a real-life surgeon and lecturer, Joseph Bell, and some of the techniques he’d discussed or pioneered. I began to wonder if Christie had done something similar when creating her character Hercule Poirot, and went straight to my bookshelf to pick up my well-worn copy of The Murder on the Links to see this mention of ‘the scene of the crime’ for myself, and to see if there were any other forensic nuggets in the text. I was astounded by the amount of what Agatha would have referred to as criminalistics in the book. The pages are filled with mentions of questioned document analysis (handwriting), impressions evidence (footprints), forensic pathology (the cadaver) and trace evidence. From the very first chapter we have discussions between Poirot and Hastings on these very topics and their value within criminal investigation:

“It’s all very well, Poirot, but I think you are falling into the habit of despising certain things too much. A fingerprint has led sometimes to the arrest and conviction of a murderer.” “And has, without doubt, hanged more than one innocent man,” remarked Poirot drily. “But surely the study of fingerprints, footprints, cigarette ash, different kinds of mud, and other clues that combine the minute observation of details - all these are of vital importance?”
The Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie

After finishing the book, which was only her second Poirot novel, I then went straight to her first, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Here again I was floored by the amount of forensics; in particular a very specific passage relating to something Poirot carries with him to the crime scene at the stately home called Styles; something which we might now refer to as a Crime Scene Examiner’s kit or a CSI kit. He wanders about collecting evidence in ‘test tubes’ and ‘envelopes’ and clearly states, “I will put down my little case until I need it,” showing that he has specific apparatus and a container for the purpose.

But here’s the interesting thing: when The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published, crime scene examiner kits did not exist. Christie gave one to Poirot in her story long before they were carried by investigators in real life, and since she started writing the book in 1916 it could have been as early as eight years before they came into existence. It was in 1924 that a crime scene kit of this nature was created by real-life pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who put together a ‘Murder Bag’ and recommended it as standard equipment for all investigators at a scene. Anecdotally he did this after attending the site of the murder and dismemberment of Emily Kaye; a bungalow on a beach known as The Crumbles. He’d witnessed police officers, who weren’t given basic protective equipment, picking up chunks of decomposing flesh with bare hands, and wiping up samples of blood with their personal handkerchiefs, so the idea of a specific kit for this purpose amongst such blood and gore makes absolute sense. But we’ll never know if he was also inspired by Christie too! I know, however, that I was.

Inline Detective Bag
Murder bag: a forensics kit used by detectives attending crime scenes, c.1946 © Museum of London

Apart from being some of the most engaging and entertaining stories I’ve ever read, Agatha Christie’s works shaped my life and career in such a way that I’ve worked with the dead my entire adulthood, spending a decade in modern forensics and a decade immersed in what I call ‘vintage crime and forensics.’ I’ve always known there was a connection between the career I wanted and my love of Christie, but it wasn’t until the day I read the quote about Jeopardy! and began to re-read her books through a forensic lens that I saw just how informed and intricate that connection was. I hope that with Murder Isn’t Easy, I can show the reader just how clever ‘Christie the Criminalist’ really was, and how important her works are in charting the nascent science of Forensics through the decades.

Carla Valentine's Book

Murder Isn't Easy: The Forensics of Agatha Christie

In Murder Isn't Easy Carla Valentine illuminates all of Agatha's incredible knowledge, showing how she stayed at the cutting edge of forensics from ballistics to fingerprint analysis, as seen through much-loved characters such as Poirot and Miss Marple.

About Carla Valentine

Carla Valentine works with the dead: she's your average chick who just happens to know as much about corpses as she does cocktails. After studying forensics, Carla assisted pathologists with post-mortems for years, before eventually becoming the Technical Curator of the world's most famous pathology museum. When it comes to death, she truly is a world-class expert.

Find out more at carlavalentine.co.uk

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