The Queen of Crime’s prim English world seems like a genteel, well-mannered place of afternoon teas and croquet on the lawn. In reality, just as in Agatha Christie’s fiction, politeness, and tradition were often veils behind which evil lurked.
The Rugeley Poisoner
Charles Dickens described Dr. William Palmer as “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey”. It’s easy to see why. As well as being convicted of poisoning a friend, John Cook, the medical practitioner from Rugeley in the English Midlands was also suspected of using the same method to kill his wife, mother-in-law, brother, and four of his children. All this cold-hearted murder, just so he could claim life insurance or inheritances to fund his gambling addiction. The trial in 1854 caused a sensation in Victorian England (Sherlock Holmes mentions Palmer as proof that when a doctor goes bad he becomes the deadliest of criminals) and memories of it were still fresh when Agatha Christie wrote her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1918). The novel, which introduces Poirot to the world, uses the Rugeley case for its framework and characterizations and features Palmer’s preferred poison, strychnine.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Steinheil Affair
Marguerite Steinheil leaped to fame in France after the French President, Felix Faure allegedly died while making love with her. More notoriety would follow in 1908 when her husband and mother were found dead from strangulation at the family home. Initially a suspect, Marguerite attempted to shift the blame by framing a servant. When that failed, she blamed the son of the housekeeper, but he had an alibi. Eventually put on trial, Steinheil was acquitted for lack of evidence and later moved to England where she married an army officer and lived a quiet life. The case would become the basis for Christie’s third novel, The Murder at the Links, set in the French seaside resort of Deauville and featuring the vampish (and possibly deadly) French cabaret singer, Isabel Duveen.
The Murder at the Links
Death of Billie Carleton
It’s a true-life story that would seem more at home in the hardboiled world of Raymond Chandler than that of the classic country house English mystery. In 1918 Billie Carleton was a star of the West End stage. She was good-looking, high-living with a habit of wearing see-thru gowns and an addiction to hard drugs. After a night of partying with her pal Reggie De Veulle, an actor with a penchant for crossing-dressing and a side-line in blackmail, Carleton was found dead in a luxurious suite at London’s Savoy Hotel. The autopsy ruled the cause of death was a cocaine overdose. With its combination of wealth, sex, sleaze, and celebrity the affair was, unsurprisingly, a newspaper sensation. Christie worked it into a short story, "The Affair of the Victory Ball."
Poirot's Early Cases
The Lindbergh Kidnapping
HL Mencken called the 1932 abduction and murder of the infant son of aviators Charles and Anne Lindbergh “the biggest story since The Resurrection” and he was barely exaggerating. This was a horrific tale that shocked the world and the subsequent trial, conviction, and execution of New Jersey carpenter, Richard Hauptmann, on evidence that was at best circumstantial kept the affair in the public consciousness for years afterward (Indeed, books are still being written about it today). Christie used the details of the Lindbergh kidnapping when describing the snatching of baby Daisy Armstrong in her most celebrated novel, Murder on the Orient Express (1934)
Murder on the Orient Express
The Tragic Death of Dennis O’Neil
Dennis O’Neil was a 12-year-old Welsh boy. In 1944 he and his brother, Terry were taken into care by the local authorities. The two boys were soon placed in the foster care of a farmer, Reginald Gough, and his wife Esther who lived in a remote part of Shropshire. A year later a doctor was called to the farm after Dennis “suffered a fit”. He found the boy dead from cardiac arrest, undernourished, and showing the signs of many prolonged and brutal beatings. Terry too was barely alive, half-starved, cut, and bruised. The Goughs stood trial for criminal neglect and manslaughter. Both served prison time. Christie was horrified by this barbaric tale of cruelty and used it as the basis for her massively successful play about childhood mistreatment and revenge, The Mousetrap.
Dr. Hawley Crippen was a London-based American homeopath. In 1910 he murdered his wife, Cora, buried her body in the basement, and then moved his mistress, Ethel Le Neve, into the house. When Cora’s friends alerted police to her absence, Crippen and Le Neve attempted to flee to the US on board a Trans-Atlantic liner. They were apprehended in Canada thanks to a new-fangled invention—the radio. Crippen was brought back to England, tried, and hanged. The case would form the Eva Kane subplot in Christie’s 1952 Hercule Poirot mystery Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.
Mrs. McGinty’s Dead
The Great Train Robbery
In 1963 a well-organized gang of hardened London criminals held up a Royal Mail train just north of the British capital and made off with £2.4 million ($2.96) (worth £56 million ($69 million) today). Carried out with military precision, the heist was one of the biggest in history. The getaway driver was Roy James, a professional thief who used his ill-gotten gains to finance his burgeoning career as an auto racing driver. James was a success on the track winning multiple trophies in an automobile he’d bought with the proceeds of a robbery at Heathrow airport. He couldn’t outpace the law, however, and was jailed for eleven years for his part in the Great Train Robbery. Christie’s 1965 Miss Marple mystery At Bertram’s Hotel features Ladislaus Malinowski, a racing driver who was part of the gang that carried out the “Irish Mail Train Robbery”.
At Bertram's Hotel
Featured image: Jeremy Horvatin / Unsplash