Common Misconceptions: Agatha Christie on Firearms

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Please be aware that Death on the Nile is discussed in some detail in this piece.

Written by Carla Valentine, author of Murder Isn't Easy: The Forensics of Agatha Christie

When considering Agatha Christie’s murder methods - fictional, of course! - one could be forgiven for assuming that her preference lay entirely with poisons. Her background as a dispenser gave her an encyclopaedic knowledge of toxic substances, and working closely with them every day meant that she didn’t have to go far to be constantly inspired. Maybe Agatha even believed, as her Inspector Curry from They Do It with Mirrors did, that “Poison has a certain appeal…it has not the crudeness of the revolver bullet.” Interestingly, a substance that seems to be heavily associated with Christie is arsenic yet she only dispatched 13 of her characters with this toxic heavy metal, and racked up a more substantial 42 deaths by shooting, whether she considered the method to be crude or not!

Although Agatha freely admitted to knowing nothing about ballistics, she did have a basic working knowledge of firearms, and this knowledge vastly improved over time.

The type of guns we are discussing here, and which are common in Christie’s works, are mainly revolvers which feature a cylinder containing 5 or 6 projectiles or ‘bullets’ in its chambers. When the hammer is cocked, the chamber revolves and a shot is fired - hence the name ‘revolver’. These guns have a rather vintage association, conjuring up images of the board game Cluedo (and are a far cry from the types of semi-automatic and automatic weapons we unfortunately hear about on the news.) Revolvers are plentiful in Christie’s work from her second book, The Secret Adversary, onwards. In these earlier works, the method of ‘investigating’ a firearm fatality consisted of circumstantial evidence, such as locating a gun — possibly on the person who wielded it or perhaps hidden in someone’s personal effects — and assuming it was the very gun which was used in the crime. But in later stories Agatha shows that her knowledge of the topic has broadened by having her characters explain the more modern methods of scientific comparison of a projectile to a particular firearm, and to the wound it caused.

For example, revolvers and other guns which fire bullets require the inside of the barrel to be scored in a spiral shape, to steady the trajectory of the projectile by causing it to spin gyroscopically. The spiral is called ‘rifling’ and it leaves a unique mark on the bullet which can be compared to the inside of the barrel. This comparison tool wasn’t very well known to the general public and only gained traction in the 1920s and 30s, but Agatha Christie introduced it to her readers via The Hollow, in 1946, which is astonishingly quick.

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The new UK covers for the Marple stories [2022] feature story specific iconography, and illustrations by Bill Bragg.

The Murder at the Vicarage established the character of Miss Marple in 1930, as it was the first full book she was featured in, and it contains some fascinating observations about guns, as well as some errors. For example, when describing a bullet and the type of gun it came from, Colonel Melchett refers to a ‘small’ one, with a calibre of .25, and pronounces it incorrectly as a "point two five". The convention is, and has always has been, to drop the decimal and simply pronounce this as ‘twenty-five’ or ‘two-five’ But, if a person has only ever seen it written down, pronouncing the ‘point’ seems logical and Agatha can be forgiven for that. Paradoxically, though, Miss Marple discusses a new firearm accessory on the market called a Maxim Silencer, which was really rather specialist knowledge, and showed that Christie was perhaps starting to research guns more thoroughly…

In this book, whilst narrowing down the list of potential suspects of the shooting of Colonel Protheroe, the pig-headed Inspector Slack decides that the Colonel’s wife, Anne Protheroe, is probably innocent because “...women never like fiddling about with firearms. Arsenic’s more in their line.” This is partly correct. Poison is often considered to be a woman’s weapon because it doesn’t require brute force to be successful, and because it is very often linked with domesticity. But in Death on the Nile we have evidence that women do like “fiddling about with firearms”, which gives the lie to the rather sexist comments of Inspector Slack. (It’s also in this 1937 book that Agatha’s knowledge of firearms reaches the level of the sublime, and she corrects her Murder at the Vicarage mistake with this sentence, “It was a pistol of very small calibre - as I say, probably a twenty-two.” Here she has dropped the word 'point!')

In Death on the Nile, the story revolves (pun retrospectively intended) around several shootings on a Nile cruiser as it drifts languorously along the famous Egyptian river. Among the passengers are the beautiful, wealthy American heiress Linnet Doyle, her handsome new husband Simon Doyle, and Simon’s bitter and dangerous ex, Jacqueline de Bellefort who has been following and threatening the newlyweds as they attempt to enjoy their honeymoon. Rather like Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth, Miss de Bellefort seems to be acting as a constant reminder of the couple’s sins: the fact that her best friend, and her then fiancé, betrayed her. Her plan is to shadow them and drive them crazy, mainly to escalate the stress between them in the vain hope of driving them apart. However, she shows Hercule Poirot that her feelings of hatred are escalating:

Then she held out her hand. In the palm of it was a small pearl-handled pistol - a dainty toy it looked. ‘I want to hurt her, to put my dear little pistol close against her head and then - just press with my finger…’
Jacqueline de Bellefort, Death on the Nile

When Linnet Doyle is finally shot, the death comes after some interesting foreshadowing in the form of a firearms discussion the passengers had in the boat’s bar, and we learn that practically everyone on this glamorous, luxury cruiser is packing heat, particularly the women! We’re told that several of the ladies had small, pearl-handled pistols, one of which was described by Hercule Poirot as a very feminine “article de luxe”. Colonel Race exclaims, in exasperation, “Does every girl on this blinking boat carry around pearl-handled, toy pistols?” and they probably did. When this book was published in 1937, it was also the same year that the Firearms Act came into force in Britain. Prior to that Act, high-end shopping destinations catered happily to ladies in need of a small but lethal weapon. Harrods sold the kind of little pistols that wouldn’t look out of place next to a woman’s powder compact, and Selfridges had an all-girls gun-club on its roof!

Rather than simply assuming Jaqueline’s gun was used to murder Linnet, the investigating characters inform us that “The bullet has got to be extracted, of course, before we can say definitely” - they can now no longer rely on circumstantial evidence to find their killer; instead many weapons will need to undergo some form of comparison investigation, and this modern real life science of ‘ballistics’ is mirrored in Agatha’s work.

Despite being surrounded by poisons, and despite 'being a woman’ who considered herself to have very little knowledge of ballistics, Agatha Christie surprises us again with her attention to detail and scientific knowledge. When it came to firearms, she certainly wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger.

About Carla Valentine

Carla Valentine is a trained Senior Anatomical Pathology Technologist, who assisted on forensic autopsies for a decade. She sidestepped the world of 'modern forensics' to become the Technical Curator of 5000 historical anatomical specimens at Barts Pathology Museum, many of which are classed as forensic or Medicolegal: they include examples of poisoning, firearm injuries and blunt force trauma from an era we refer to as 'The Golden Age' of crime and detective fiction. As a life-long Agatha Christie fan, and a forensic specialist, Carla wrote Murder Isn't Easy: The Forensics of Agatha Christie which was nominated for an HRF Keating Award at Crimefest 2022, and was a Barnes & Noble Monthly Pick in the USA. Keep in touch via www.carlavalentine.co.uk and @past_mortems on Instagram.

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Explore further insights into the forensics of Agatha Christie in Carla Valentine's latest book.

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