Dark Brilliance at Chelsea Physic Garden


Well, today I have the task of trying to write a blog post while the builders dig up part of our garden to build a new conservatory. It will be lovely in the long run but it’s a little bit noisy at the moment! Still, the pneumatic drill has stopped for a few minutes so I want to take the opportunity to tell you about an event I went to last night at Chelsea Physic Garden (the photo is from a visit to Chelsea a couple of weeks ago to see the snowdrops).

It’s full title was Dark Brilliance: Agatha Christie, poisonous plants and murder mysteries. It was a panel of four authors – Daniel Pembrey (who chaired), Helen Smith, Dr Kathryn Harkup and Rebecca Chance. Right from the beginning, their knowledge and expertise on Agatha Christie was clear and made me realise how little Christie I’ve actually read! One of the points that they put across was that sometimes TV adaptations and films don’t capture the sheer brilliance of Christie’s writing. Although they all agreed that the BBC’s version of ‘And Then There Were None’ was extremely good, it did miss some of the nuances of the book (and clearly added a few – was there a ‘towel’ in the original?!).

Christie is the author most renowned for using poison as a murder weapon and indeed appeared to be her weapon of choice. She did in fact train as an apothecary’s assistant during World War One and continued this work for a while afterwards. In her book, ‘A is for Arsenic’, Kathryn Harkup tells us that Agatha Christie volunteered at a hospital dispensary during World War Two, which kept her knowledge up to date. She certainly knew her stuff and Kathryn Harkup, as a scientist, expounds on this knowledge by looking in detail at 14 of the poisons Christie used (she used many more than this). So, if you’re interested in the science behind Agatha Christie’s poisons, then ‘A is for Arsenic’ is most definitely for you! And for the aesthetics among you, it has the most wonderful Art Deco cover!

Daniel Pembrey, Helen Smith and Rebecca Chance are crime writers and they spoke of how Christie influenced them as authors. One of the things they particularly liked about her was that she didn’t cheat her readers. The clues are always there, possibly hiding in the background but there nonetheless.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, there were a lot of laughs too. As Kathryn Harkup pointed out, everything is a poison if taken in the wrong quantity – even water. About seven litres would be enough to kill but as Kathryn said, your victim might notice!

So, if this has whet your appetite for reading Agatha Christie then some of the panel’s favourites were Endless Night, And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Happy reading!

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