Poison as a Multivalent Substance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles

According to critics Alistair Rolls and Jesper Gulddal, the genre of detective fiction is “located in a field of binaries: structure versus innovation, stability versus mobility, the one final solution versus the many possibilities of the beginning” (7-8). Such a take, however, is somewhat dismissive of the nuances in Agatha Christie’s writing, which is particularly demonstrated through the nature of poison in Hercule Poirot’s first case The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Rather than confine Christie’s work to the limitations of binaries, Pierre Bayard contends that her fiction is not as much a series of clues to be solved than “an examination of the ambiguities of interpretation” (cited in Pamboukian, 73). Thus the configuration of strychnine, the poison deployed in Styles, as encompassing a plant-medicine-toxin identity is a prime example of Christie’s ambiguity, recalling Jacques Derrida’s interest in the mystery of the pharmakondue to it “always functioning on multiple levels, always both substance and antisubstance, poison and remedy” (cited in Pamboukian, 73). Poison, as Christie utilizes it, cannot be classified according to descriptions of extremes but demands to be appreciated in all its complexity. Similarly, Poirot’s investigation of the incident at Styles Court reveals the natures of its occupants to be characterized by the same ambiguity as Christie’s choice murder weapon. All of the suspects in the case are therefore physical embodiments of strychnine’s multivalent composition. While each individual can be sorted into either the plant, medicine, or toxin family, only Alfred Inglethorp and Evelyn “Evie” Howard occupy multiple facets simultaneously as the guilty parties. This complicated identity of poison, by analogy, results in complicated identities of Christie’s characters.

Two points of parallel are apparent when considering strychnine in its state as a plant in relation to the characters of Styles. First is the representation of the potential for harm in a range of severity according to its chemical components. The strychnine toxin is sourced from several parts of the Strychnos nux-vomica tree, including the seeds of its fruit, which contain approximately 1.5% strychnine, the dried blossoms, which contain about 1.0%, and the tree’s bark which contains a small amount of the compound as well (Food and Fitness). This gradient of toxicity finds its counterpart in the motives of each ultimately innocent suspect, ranging from the least threatening of Lawrence Cavendish to the most extreme of Mary Cavendish. Lawrence, though a qualified doctor, had set aside his medical profession in favor of unsuccessful literary pursuits that left him dependent upon Mrs. Inglethorp’s financial generosity (Christie, 5). Lawrence’s motive for murder is therefore assumed to be a larger allowance, yet all of his interference in the investigation is not in service of his own interests but to shield Cynthia Murdoch from suspicion of murder (119).

In contrast, Mary Cavendish becomes suspect when Poirot reveals she had been in Mrs. Inglethorp’s bedchamber as the latter experienced the symptoms of the poisoning; however, Mary’s only crime is her disposition as “an unusually jealous woman” which drove her to add a narcotic to the deceased’s nightly cocoa in hopes of acquiring evidence of her husband John’s infidelity (97, 110-111). That Mary took direct action against Mrs. Inglethorp adds a layer of malice to her character that is not present in Lawrence, who only endeavored to misconstrue the evidence. Furthermore, administering the narcotic is debatable as a benign or malignant deed as it slowed the action of the strychnine, delaying the onset of death though not prolonging the pain. Thus, while strychnine exists as an innocuous plant, there is always the possibility for harm or fatality depending on the plant segment from which the alkaloid is extracted. Lawrence, Mary, and Poirot’s other suspects also operate in this potentiality, with Lawrence being less harmful than Mary. Grading each character in a manner that subjectively weighs their motives in relation to the others enables Poirot to rule out suspects as the case continues.

The second aspect of strychnine as a plant lies in the simplicity of that being its natural state without synthesis or transformation. This transparency of being exactly what it purports to be finds a curious parallel in Alfred Inglethorp. Mr. Inglethorp, as the husband and outsider to Styles Court, would be the primary suspect in Mrs. Inglethorp’s murder. Yet Poirot’s investigation uncovered “so much evidence against him that [Poirot] was inclined to believe that he had not done it” (114). Furthermore, much to Poirot’s confusion, “the more efforts [Poirot] made to clear him, the more efforts he made to get himself arrested” (114-115). All of which, of course, were indications of Inglethorp’s construction of a clever plan to get away with murder by being charged with murder. According to English laws, a man acquitted of certain charges cannot be tried again for the same offences; thus, Alfred believes the success of the murder plot necessitates manufacturing a steep amount of evidence that indicates his guilt while simultaneously producing an airtight alibi, “… and, hey presto, he [would be] safe for life!” (115). Alfred as a “man of method” (35) therefore represents strychnine in its plant form in his attempt to ensure his name is cleared, capitalizing on his image as the murderer while actually being one of the murderers.

In addition to its identity as a plant, strychnine is also portrayed as both medicine and poison in Styles. Inherent to understanding these two identities is the concept of duality, which also plays a role in Mr. Inglethorp’s and Miss Howard’s scheme. Firstly, it is important to note the definition of poison as it is understood by the wider public. In the common sense of the word, and as it often operates in the mystery genre, poison generally “indicates a toxic substance that is nefariously added to food or drink with fatal results” (Pamboukian, 74). In the pharmaceutical sense of the word, poison is “a substance which, on ingestion, inhalation, absorption, application, injection or development within the body, in relatively small amounts, may cause structural damage or functional disturbance” (74). Thus, “poisons” are not necessarily fatal and are marked by dosage rather than an intrinsic toxicity. Strychnine is not introduced in its medicinal state until, during the inquest of Mrs. Inglethorp’s death, Lawrence makes it known that she had regularly consumed a tonic containing strychnine for some time (Christie, 55). Moreover, Lawrence falsely suggests that the cumulative effect of the strychnine tonic may have caused Mrs. Inglethorp’s death, or that she may have accidentally overdosed.

But Dr. Wilkins, her physician, is quick to prove these ideas as impossible by stating that on the one hand, the effects of a cumulative poison would have resulted in noticeable chronic symptoms, and on the other, that three or even four doses of her daily tonic intake would not have resulted in death (55). Indeed, Mrs. Inglethorp would have to ingest nearly the entire bottle in order for Dr. Wilkins to account for the amount of strychnine found at the post-mortem – which is exactly how she was murdered. Thus, when the dosage is adhered to, Christie illustrates the tonic of strychnine as quite harmless and even beneficial within the narrative. Furthermore, Christie takes for granted the reader’s assumptions of defining poisons by the common opinion of it – that it could not be identified as anything other than a toxic substance, and that it must have been added to either Mrs. Inglethorp’s coffee or her cocoa. Because the characters’ assumptions of how strychnine was administered to Mrs. Inglethorp align with the reader’s, the ingenuity of transforming the tonic into the murder weapon is not considered a possibility. Here, communal expectations of the nature and identity of poison are subverted, thereby encouraging notions of medicine and poison as distinct categories to be similarly reexamined.

Like its function as a medicine, strychnine’s composition as a poison is similarly difficult. As previously mentioned, Lawrence makes the case for the strychnine present in Mrs. Inglethorp’s tonic, but that is quickly dismissed. Yet as Poirot discovers, it is the only medium which could effectively disguise the notoriously bitter taste of strychnine (112). Moreover, the prescription Poirot describes from a book on dispensing includes potassium bromide, which acts in the solution to precipitate the majority of the strychnine salt as insoluble bromide crystals (113). The prescription also includes the description of a case in which a lady in England died from ingesting a similar mixture in which nearly all the strychnine of the medicine was taken in the last dose. Though Dr. Wilkins’ prescription for Mrs. Inglethorp did not contain bromide, Poirot discovers that Cynthia provided bromide sleeping powders for Mrs. Inglethorp (47). By adding these powders to the tonic, Evie was able to introduce bromide into the mixture and therefore cause most of the strychnine to collect into the last dose. There is a certain irony that in the combination of Mrs. Inglethorp’s medicines, both made up to aid and prolong her health and wellness, a deadly concoction was to be found.

Likewise, Christie also works to subvert reader expectations considering the appearance and quality of the characters she presents. Alfred naturally serves as the primary suspect of Mrs. Inglethorp’s murder since he is the assumed beneficiary of her will. Christie does not make it easy for the reader to see the truth of his position, instead casting a significant amount of doubt onto the character and integrity of John Cavendish. Alfred could not have committed the crime single-handedly but required an accomplice, which was to be found in Evelyn Howard. The discovery of Miss Howard’s involvement, both in Mrs. Inglethorp’s death and in a romantic tie to Alfred, is something of a shock due to her character portrayal, especially in comparison to less savory characters such as Dr. Bauerstein. From the novel’s beginning, Miss Howard is depicted as invaluable to Mrs. Inglethorp and held in great esteem by John. “She always had a rough tongue,” John remarks, “but there is no stauncher friend in England than Evelyn Howard” (11). Following Mrs. Inglethorp’s death, and Miss Howard’s reappearance at Styles Court, Poirot is quick to observe that hers are the only eyes to have wept (44).

Moreover, Miss Howard tells Poirot that she was not financially indebted to Mrs. Inglethorp like the rest of the family and refused to accept any “gifts” other than her yearly salary, which would at times cause great offense to her employer (45). Mrs. Inglethorp held sway chiefly by means of her wealth; thus, by removing any element of financial need, Miss Howard also seemingly removes a motive for murder. In this way, Evie could fashion herself as the only one of the household who retained her self-respect and allowed a fondness for Mrs. Inglethorp to develop, which turned to friendship (45). Posing as two who claim to genuinely care for Mrs. Inglethorp permits Miss Howard to avoid all suspicion and Mr. Inglethorp to absorb all suspicion. Comparable to the categories of medicine and poison, the categories of husband and friend are not independent from that of homicidal criminals.

Duality, and the instability of identity, are further emphasized in two more instances. First is Miss Howard’s unnatural vehemence toward Mr. Inglethorp, which Hastings deems “almost a mania” and causes him to doubt her sanity (70). Although Evie claims she has “always hated [Inglethorp] like poison,” (75), her true feelings for him are actually discovered to be the opposite, and her feigned hatred is found to conceal a “tie of passion” that served as her motive for committing the murder (118). Evie’s ruse is carried to such an extent that she even characterizes it metaphorically as poison. The second, more explicit blurring of distinctions is Miss Howard dressing as Alfred to purchase strychnine at the local chemist’s in order to direct suspicion toward John. The resulting disguise is a convoluted accumulation of identities: it is Miss Howard, masquerading as the fiercely devoted friend, who is posing as John Cavendish the murderous stepson, who is impersonating Alfred Inglethorp the unlikable husband. The flexibility of identities achieved here is due to the resemblance between Evelyn and Alfred:

“It was most easy for her. She is of a good height, her voice is deep and manly; moreover, remember, she and Inglethorp are cousins, and there is a distinct resemblance between them, especially in their gait and bearing. It was simplicity itself” (115).

The ease of assuming and executing such an undertaking is emphasized by Evie’s capabilities for other deceptions, as Poirot tells Hastings, “If Miss Howard were capable of poisoning the old lady, she would be quite equally capable of simulating devotion” (71). Both Alfred and Evie, therefore, primarily engage with two separate entities necessary to their ploy – devoted companions on the one hand, evil schemers on the other – which give rise to other opportunities to use entities at their disposal. Here again, Christie works to overturn the reader’s expectations surrounding not only the poison or the act of poisoning, but the poisoner as well. The two halves of the poisonous identity, then – Inglethorp and Evie, the strychnine tonic and the bromide powders – are crucial to the plot’s success.

If the nature of poison is ambivalent and defies binary definition, then so too does the distinction between poisoner and victim become complicated (Pamboukian, 80). The clichéd depiction of poisoning in mystery literature casts the victim as undeserving, the poisoner as immoral, and the crime as unjustified (79). While it can be argued that murder is never warranted, the justifiability of the crime is skewed and debatable for majority of the novel because it is dependent on Mrs. Inglethorp’s likeability. At the start of the case Hastings describes Mrs. Inglethorp as “a lady who liked to make her own plans, and expected other people to fall in with them” (Christie, 5). Additionally, her wealth is a direct result of her personality and strength of character: “[Mr. Cavendish] had been completely under his wife’s ascendancy, so much so that, on dying, he left [Styles Court] to her for her lifetime, as well as the larger part of his income; an arrangement that was distinctly unfair to his two sons” (5), sons that are not, in fact, Mrs. Inglethorp’s own.

John and Lawrence are not the only ones subject to Mrs. Inglethorp’s will, but Cynthia Murdoch as well. Cynthia, the daughter of a former classmate, comes under Mrs. Inglethorp’s care after having been left a penniless orphan (5). Hastings, however, notices “something in her manner that reminded [him] that her position was a dependent one, and that Mrs. Inglethorp, kind as she might be in the main, did not allow her to forget it” (9-10). In John’s (and thus Mary’s), Lawrence’s, and Cynthia’s cases, Mrs. Inglethorp “certainly had the whip hand, namely: the purse strings” (5). Thus, although inclined to “charitable and social notoriety,” enjoying her position as the “Lady Bountiful,” Mrs. Inglethorp is not generous for generosity’s sake (5). It is a small wonder that none of the household grieves for the matriarch, save for Evie’s crocodile tears. And yet the reader is still given to sympathizing with Mrs. Inglethorp, albeit late in the novel, when Poirot explains her discovery of Alfred’s unfinished letter to Evelyn that reveals their affair as well as the danger to her life (116). Well past her prime, though not permitting anyone to deem her as such, Mrs. Inglethorp has allowed herself to be swindled as a “very rich, but rather foolish old lady,” and in this way wins the reader’s pity (118). She is a far cry from the innocent, benevolent dowager image, but Mrs. Inglethorp’s poor judgement of character urges the conclusion that her death certainly was not deserved.

While subverting the stereotype of Mrs. Inglethorp as a victim, Christie simultaneously obeys those that she establishes in Styles. When discussing crimes, Evie’s opinion of murder is that it is associated more with a man due to its violence; Mary Cavendish, however, disagrees that such is not always true, especially in cases of poisoning (9). Furthermore, when Mary later comes under suspicion of the murder, Hastings laments that, “Surely no woman as beautiful as Mary Cavendish could be a murderess. Yet beautiful women had been known to poison” (83). At the end of the case, Poirot reads a letter from Alfred which praises Evie for mixing the tonic with the bromide powders: “That idea of yours about the bromides was a stroke of genius!” (113). Evie is also not a beautiful woman, as Poirot observes, “There is a woman with a head and a heart too, Hastings. Though the good God gave her no beauty!” (43). In this light, it is not surprising then that Miss Howard, a homely, masculine woman, devised the plan to mix the bromide powder into the strychnine tonic, and it can be argued that she is more responsible for Mrs. Inglethorp’s death than Alfred. Thus, Christie at once defies and conforms to the stereotypes laid out in the novel and in the mystery genre in general.

The depiction of strychnine as plant, medicine, and poison extends to the characterization of the various figures of Styles. By examining each facet of strychnine separately and in combination with each other, it is possible for parallels to be drawn between the toxin and the various suspects of the novel. Presenting both the facts and the characters in such a composite, muddled fashion creates the false trails and red herrings necessary to not only the success of the crime, were it not for Poirot, but the success of the duplicitous mystery novel as well (Flanders, 232). Additionally, the function of strychnine in Stylesaffects the novel’s structure – like the fatal dose of the toxin, Poirot’s method is to reserve the full explanation of the case until the very end. However, Christie’s favoring of poison should not be credited to a feminine aversion of violence, but an investment in a multifaceted reality (229). A simple view of poison as a toxic substance results in a simple view of the poisoner, and if Poirot trusted such a view in the case the wrong individual may have been arrested. Christie’s view of strychnine as both remedy and poison expands the succeeding perspectives of the criminals in Hastings’ and the reader’s minds. Consequently, substances in Styles and in all Christie novels which “appear to occupy only one identity in fact always occupy multiple identities” and add a feature of delightful perplexity to her writing (Pamboukian, 75, emphasis in original).

Works Cited

Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Deodand Publishing, 2002.

Flanders, Reshmi D. “Concealment and Revelation: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Reader Suspense.” Style, 2014, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 219-242.

Pamboukian, Sylvia A. “In the Apothecaries’ Garden with Agatha Christie.” Clues: A Journal of Detection, 2016, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 72-81.

Rolls, Alistair and Gulddal, Jesper. “Reappropriating Agatha Christie: An Introduction.” Clues: A Journal of Detection, 2016, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 5-10.

“Strychnine.” Food and Fitness: A Dictionary of Diet and Exercise, edited by Michael Kent, 2nded., Oxford UP, 2016. Oxford Reference.