Book Simple: An Agatha Christie Sort of Food Poisoning
a blogumn by Amy Brown
Trust none of the dishes at dinner:
Those pies are steaming-black with the poison Mummy put there.
Whatever she offers you, make sure another person
Tries it out first. . . .
What I can’t stand is the calculating woman
Who plans her crimes in cold blood.
I borrow this epigraph from Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature, because I am recuperating from a bout of food poisoning this weekend and I wish I’d taken Juvenal’s advice. Only in my case the “pie” is a broiled pork chop with sautéed broccoli rapini, followed by an almond tapioca pudding, and “Mummy” is, well, me. I’m not sure which of the above is the culprit; despite my usual lackadaisical attitude towards expiration dates, these products were fresh from the store. Just another reason not to shop at Whole Foods, in case you needed one.
Anyway, Juvenal’s warning applies as well to the protagonists of Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of my Thumbs, published in 1968. The lesser-known of Christie’s sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford won me over with their high spirits and good humor in an earlier mystery N or M?, a wild spy drama set in World War II. In By the Pricking of my Thumbs, Tommy and Tuppence are back home in England, a little bored, and visiting Tommy’s aged aunt in a nursing home. “After all,” says Tuppence, “I married you for better or for worse and Aunt Ada is decidedly the worse.”
Aunt Ada feels roughly the same about Tuppence. After banishing her to the lower regions, Ada confides to Tommy – “I’m told there’s a lot of poisoning going on here. To get hearts for the surgeons, so I’m told. Don’t think it’s true, myself.”
Downstairs, Tuppence meets a Mrs. Lancaster, who offers her tea, coffee, “Or a glass of milk perhaps. It’s not poisoned today.” More unnervingly, Mrs. Lancaster asks Tuppence if it were her “poor child” behind the fireplace. Mrs. Lancaster is bats, Tuppence concludes.
Their duty done for another year, the Beresfords head home, only to be notified of Aunt Ada’s death and her legacy to them of a mysterious painting of a house Tuppence recognizes. It’s a house in Sutton Chancellor, a town with a history of strange child murders. The first was a strangled child of twelve left in a copse, and “then there were others. Not for a month or two sometimes. And then there’d be another one.”
Hearing these stories, Tuppence finds herself wondering: “Dead children – too many dead children.” Returning to the nursing home, Mrs. Lancaster has disappeared, and a doctor has dark suspicions.
As always with Christie, the story is a marvelous ride, and its twists and turns distracted me quite fully from my agonized stomach this weekend. And both Tuppence and I would agree with Juvenal: “whatever [you are offered], make sure another person Tries it out first.”
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