Poached eggs and plots: How Agatha Christie developed both plot and characters through the use of familiar foods

Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham were acclaimed as better writers than Christie, yet it is her work that has endured.

Christie developed the rather mechanical crime fiction genre into something quite new and character driven. (Image: agathachristie.com)
You had to be careful eating anything in Agatha Christie’s world. In the course of writing 66 detective novels and 14 story collections, which began exactly 100 years back with the publication of 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' in October 1920, she dispatched victims in many ways, but poison was clearly her favourite. It could be administered in a cup of coffee – usefully bitter to cover up the taste – or injected into chocolates or mixed in a bottle of beer. Christie used poisons ranging from the common, like arsenic and cyanide, to the rare, like thallium (her use of it in The Pale Horse helped uncover its use in real-life cases).

“She used poisons in the majority of her books, far more than any of her contemporaries,” writes Kathryn Harkup in 'A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie', in which she traces her knowledge to her job as a volunteer in the dispensary of a local hospital during the First World War.

But food serves for more than just to deliver poison in Christie’s work. Crime fiction and cooking have often coincided, of course, with detectives who were gourmets, like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, or the recent trend for detective stories with recipes, like the series written by Kerry Greenwood or Diane Mott Davidson, whose detectives are, respectively, a baker and a caterer. Even the austere Sherlock Holmes tackled a culinary crime in the ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ where a gem is discovered in a goose being cooked for Christmas.


In Silvia Baucekova’s rather earnest thesis titled ‘The Flavour of Murder: Food and Crime in the Novels of Agatha Christie’ she suggests that crime authors deliberately use the “paradoxical nature of food and eating and the danger inherent in it.” Food sustains us, but can also kill us, and food as meat involves a killing to begin with (vegetarianism is rare in Christie’s work, and usually a sign of cranky eccentricity).

More plausibly, Baucekova notes how often Christie’s works begin with a meal: a breakfast table or dinner, a formal setting soon to be disrupted by death. This is similar to how film directors love a dinner table, which sets a compact world, with rituals and hierarchies, within which a drama can then be unleashed.

But Christie’s real skill comes in how she uses food to sketch her characters. Crime fiction, when she started, was a kind of puzzle solving, dominated by themes like the locked-room story, where figuring out the solution was the point, and the characters of those in the story were not important. The only one that really mattered was the genius-detective, like Holmes, with a side-kick, like Dr. Watson, to help illuminate his genius. Christie appeared to respect this convention, with Hercule Poirot introduced as the genius in 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles', and Captain Hastings as his sidekick. But by gently mocking Poirot as vain and obsessed with his own genius, and also his appearance (those waxed moustache tips) and appetite (Belgians like Poirot were routinely caricatured as greedy), she started subverting the rules. Christie developed the rather mechanical crime fiction genre into something quite new and character driven.
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Christie appeared to respect this convention, with Hercule Poirot introduced as the genius in 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles', and Captain Hastings as his sidekick.
Christie appeared to respect this convention, with Hercule Poirot introduced as the genius in 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles', and Captain Hastings as his sidekick.

She was not alone in this. Her fellow writers in what’s been called the Golden Age of detective fiction, like Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, were all writing character driven crime fiction, often adding layers with depictions of a specific milieu like the theatre (Marsh) or worlds of academia or advertising (Sayers). They were acclaimed as better writers than Christie, yet it is her work that has really endured, possibly because she got the balance right, between ingeniously puzzling plot and atmosphere and characters.

And Christie develops both plot and characters through the use of familiar foods. For example, in 'A Murder is Announced' an old lady’s world is sharply illuminated by her recollection of real hunger: “Bread, you know, and a jar of meat paste, and a scrape of margarine.

Day after day, and how one longs for a good plate of meat and two vegetables.” In the short story ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ a man who dines regularly at a restaurant suddenly orders very different foods – which leads Poirot to conclude that the original man is dead, and his killer is impersonating him for an alibi.

One reason Christie is still popular is nostalgic escapism, and perhaps Covid has reinforced this. Yet she herself knew how deceptive this could be and, as always, used it in a plot. In At Bertram’s Hotel, one of her last books, Miss Marple enjoys a stay in a London hotel which seems preserved in the past, not least with food. It serves classic recipes like seed cake and perfectly poached eggs: “Rich deep yellow yolk oozed out, thick and creamy. Proper eggs! It took her back to 1909.” But it is the 1960s and Miss Marple soon realises the nostalgia is a deliberate cover for a criminal enterprise. From poached eggs to plots, you can trust nothing in Christie’s world and there is dangerously addictive pleasure in that.
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