My Fall Collection was based off of Agatha Christie's book, Crooked House. I have been fascinated with her stories for a long time, but recently I have been learning more about her life and her books. There is a lovely biography about her (Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran) that talks about how she planned her books and what gave her the ideas. I also recently read A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup, which is about the poisons that she used in each novel. This was a fantastic book that not only talked about Agatha Christie's life and her books, but it also talks about the real poisons and how they work, with real life case studies that Christie herself might have used as inspiration.
Agatha Christie actually worked as a nurse during World War One, and she started writing her novels around then. She later worked at a pharmacy where she learnt a great deal more about poisons. Poison is often used in medication in small doses, so she knew how much would kill a person, what it tasted and smelt like, as well as the symptoms. Although some of her novels are a bit far fetched, most of them are very well planned out and well researched.
I recently saw the 2017 movie of Crooked House, and fell in love not only with the story, but also with the costumes. If you have not read or seen Crooked House, beware of spoilers ahead! (Although, the novel is almost 70 years old, so you probably know the story line anyway)
Set in a wealthy families home, Crooked House follows a young detective who looks into the death of the family patriarch, Aristide Leonides. There are three generations of Leonides living under the one roof, and all of them have motive. Charles Hayward's fiance Sofia is the favourite grandchild of Aristide Leonides, and believes that he has been killed. They discover that he had been injected with his own medicine, eserine. Eserine is a highly toxic alkaloid that comes from the Calabar Bean. It is a rare choice of poison, and Christie only uses it in two of her novels (Crooked House and Curtain).
The Calabar Bean (or Physostigma Venenosum) is from West Africa, and was used often in the area as a trial for serious crimes. The suspect would drink or eat something made with the bean in it (various different methods were used to prepare the bean- sometimes they would swallow the bean whole, other times it would be mushed up and mixed with water). If they died, they were guilty, and if they lived, they were innocent. However, if they lived but suffered with side effects from the bean, they would be sold into slavery. The locals called this traition 'chop nut', and it was a very trusted method. Some people would voluntarily swallow it to prove their innocence. It is estimated that it caused 120 deaths per year in that area.
Scottish Missionaries who came to Calabar in the 1840s were the ones to bring the poison to the rest of the world. They called it the Ordeal Bean of Calabar. Wealthy people around the world would collect exotic plants like this, however it was very difficult to find a plant. The king in Calabar ordered that all of the plants be distroyed excepting a few that were locked up and used for justice. In 1855, Reverend Hope Waddell smuggled a few beans out and sent them to a toxicologist in Edinburgh. Eserine (more commonly known as physostigmine now) was found to be a miotic, which means that it causes the pupil to contract. By the late 1800s, scientists had found many alkaloids in the bean, but had not yet been able to take out the active ingredient (eserine is unstable in water and turns into eseroline, which can be used as pain relief). Many of the alkaloids found in the bean can be used in medicine, such as geneserine (second most common alkaloid in the Calabar bean) which is used for digestive disorders such as dyspepsia, or physovenine (has been found to be useful for treating symptoms of Alzheimers).
Symptoms of eserine poisoning is tremors, contraction of the pupils, difficulty breathing, a slowed pulse, and involuntary urinating. It is said to be quite painless, for victims of eserine poisoning are usually very docile. This is because the eserine blocks the signals going through the nervous system. It mainly affects the parasympathetic nervous system, which mainly controls the regulation of fluids such as tears and saliva. It also controls contractions in smooth muscles (the muscles in the intestines, blood vessels, iris of the eye, walls of the stomach, etc. The move involuntarily, so we have no control over them). Eserine has the opposite symptoms as atropine, another poison that Agatha Christie has used in her novels before. Because of their opposite reactions, they can be antidotes to each other.
After shutting down the 'chop nut' system in Calabar, there are very few cases of being poisoned by eserine. Normally there is not enough in any medication for it to actually kill someone, they would just get severe abdominal pains and sometimes hallucinations.
The poisoning of Aristide Leonides in Crooked House is a little bit far fetched. He is 85 and is killed by being injected with his eye drops (eserine eye drops are sometimes used for glaucoma) instead of his insulin. The amount of eserine in eye drops would most likely not be enough to kill someone- it is estimated that one would need to inject the victim with between 3 to 5 bottles of eyedrops to kill a 70kg man. Of course, there is a chance that there was more eserine in his eye drops than would be put it today, and he was not a healthy man (suffering from glaucoma, diabetes, and a weak heart). More likely would the eyedrops not have killed him, but instead make him quite ill.
The genius of Crooked House isn't the use of poison (although it is clever and an unusual choice, even if it is a little far fetched), but the person who commited the murder. I will not say who killed Leonides, but I will say that Christies publisher did try to convince her to change the murderer. She did not back down, and it ended up being one of her best novels (in my opinion).
On a much lighter note, I would like to talk about the location of our photo shoot for this collection! I was lucky enough to get photos in Iron Crow, an antiques shop in Calgary that often rents out to magazines and movie sets. I was also lucky enough to get to borrow some shoes from DSign Step! I did end up getting a few beautiful daguerreotypes from Iron Crow, and I have my eye on a few more DSign Step shoes.
Thank you so much for reading! If you are interested in reading more about Agatha Christie and her novels, I would absolutely recommend the two novels I mentioned in the beginning of my post, as well as The Inheritor's Powder by Sandra Hempel (not about Agatha, but it is about arsenic, and it is just as fascinating as A is for Arsenic). Feel free to send me other suggestions of books you think I would like, or to ask any questions if you would like to hear more!