Thursday, 24 December 2015

I'm planning a crime spree for christmas

I dunno about you, but I'm planning a bit of a crime spree over Christmas. Christmas is a bit stressful, and I always find a bit of murder gets me through nicely. It has to be the right kind of murder, though: none of yer scarcely-clad nymphettes pornographically displayed for viewers' delectation around here, thank you! Modern crime is so tedious. I prefer a good old fashioned killing that actually taxes my brain a bit. Glamorous locations are a plus, of course, and anything involving cocktails is a bonus.

If you are looking for a suitable cocktail to do away with some of your offensive relatives, you may be disappointed by A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup, which despite telling in forensic detail how Agatha Christie committed dozens of poisonings, is sadly little help in planning to do away with that great-aunt who just refuses to die. Harkup is a chemist and Agatha Christie fanatic and writes with enormous enthusiasm and knowledge about Christie's favourite modus operandi of murder.

Each chapter details a particular poison and goes through how it works, the history and symptoms, which of Christie's books it features in, examples of real-life poisonings, and the forensic history of how these poisons became detectable. It covers all sorts of weird and strange real-life crimes I'd never heard of, such as a Belgian lady serial killer who killed up to 20 people in the 1930s.

A is For Arsenic is quite fascinating if you are interested in Agatha Christie, or indeed in forensic science or the link between science and literature. Of course I adore Christie for her classic whodunnits, but I had no idea how carefully she constructed her fictional murders, using knowledge she gained working in a hospital pharmacy during World War One.

My main worry about A is for Arsenic was that it would be riddled with spoilers, but Harkup cleverly talks about the murders in Christie's books without giving too much away. Which is good, as my other Christmas reading is this.

A number of Christie's novels were set in the Middle East, which she often visited with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan. Mallowan was fourteen years younger than her. "An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her," Christie once quipped. If you go to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, you can see a beautiful necklace made of ancient beads which Mallowan excavated and had made into a necklace for her.

After years of awful pulpy-looking editions of Christie, the current 30s-themed paperbacks are really handsome. This particular copy came from Topping and Co in Bath, who have the best selection of Agatha Christies, hardback and paperback, I've ever seen in a bookshop. (They are also well stocked with the British Library's Crime Classics series, which includes many other classic 30s whodunnits. I read A Mystery in White last Christmas, and thoroughly enjoyed it.)

If you've only ever watched Christie as a TV adaptation, I really recommend you purchase yourself a book. While the TV adaptations are enjoyable, to appreciate Christie's real cleverness you need to read the text, and experience the full frustration of knowing you read all the clues and still didn't have a clue whodunnit.

There are a few things that you can rely on in a Christie. Apart from murder, these are: an interesting location, poison, and that several suspects will have committed some crime other than the murder. Watching a TV adaptation, its easy to think of it all as twee, but reading the books, with their jealous, grasping families and lying servants, you see Christie had a far from rosy view of humanity, and positively revelled in the less pleasant side of human nature. What she didn't, though, was lay out murder victims as gory, bloody thrills, like many modern crime dramas do. An Agatha Christie may be dark, but it is an exercise in intellectual puzzling rather than voyeurism. Behind the antique detailing, she is quietly subversive too. Her heroes are easily dismissed: an effete little refugee (yes, Hercule Poirot is a refugee) and a little old spinster that nobody takes any notice of.

If you really are too besozzled by Christmas to read a book, there is a new adaptation of And Then There Were None starting on BBC1 on Boxing day.

I'll be watching, of course, but I don't feel British TV does crime that well, it's either a bit creepy, like godawful sexy-serial-killer outing The Fall, or too predictable. Who wants to see a miserable detective trying to solve a murder when you already know the answer?

I am however a big fan Scandi-Noir thriller the Bridge. I like to think Christie would have approved of the Bridge's Autistic Lady Detective and everybody-has-a-motive plotlines, so I may just dig in with a box set of that.

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