Agatha Christie’s Poisons and Other Crime & Mystery Writers’ Fascinating Lives
Some thriller, crime and detective novelists have had lives as interesting as those of their protagonists. From Ian Fleming’s CIA past to Anne Perry’s own experience in bloodshed, check out these authors whose lives were stranger than their fiction!
"Anne Perry" isn’t a pseudonym, but the author wasn’t born with that name. She had it legally changed after serving a prison sentence for murder. In 1954, in New Zealand, Juliet Hulme (as Perry was once called) and her close friend Pauline Parker killed Parker’s mother using a brick. The motive? Hulme’s parents were planning to move the family to South Africa, and Hulme and Parker didn’t want to be separated. When Parker asked her mother if Hulme could live with them instead, she objected, and the girls took bloody revenge. Peter Jackson’s movie “Heavenly Creatures” fictionalizes the Parker-Hulme murder. More recently, Peter Graham documented the crime in “Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century.” After Perry served her sentence, she returned to her birthplace (England) and became a flight attendant before beginning her successful career as a writer.
When author James Ellroy was only 10, his mother was murdered and her killer was never found. While the case went unsolved, Ellroy entered young adulthood and picked up some bad habits—he turned to drugs and alcohol, shoplifted, broke into houses and was eventually put in jail. Sobering up after a terrible bout of pneumonia while in prison, Ellroy began to write crime fiction, eventually turning to another unsolved murder that dominated his imagination: the infamous Black Dahlia case.
The creator of suave, martini-drinking 007, James Bond, author Ian Fleming made a living as a banker—but don’t let that brief career fool you. Recruited by the Royal Navy’s Intelligence branch in 1939, he became deeply involved in England’s World War II sabotage and spy work, helping to devise schemes such as planting false papers on dead bodies in order to mislead enemies. He became involved with American affairs, too, and played a part in planning what became the CIA. Disappointingly, unlike his cooler fictional creation, he never owned an Aston Martin, and was in fact a stickler for road safety.
Thriller writer Charles McCarry, during his tenure as a journalist for the Saturday Evening Post, also worked for the CIA. Starting in 1958, he would get phone calls and be given instructions and off he’d go to Asia, Europe or Africa to do… whatever it is real spies do. McCarry has the typical “Old Boys” attitude towards his former employment: he is unimpressed. When he got to the highest-level security clearance, he says he looked at a top-secret file he was given and thought, “What’s so secret about this?”
From writer to detective
Detectives from 1931 London are surely turning in their graves, as crime novelist P.D. James claims to have solved the murder case they couldn't crack. The case, which James mentions in her book “The Murder Room,” involved an insurance agent, William Wallace, who received a prank phone message from a disgruntled employee that led him on a wild goose chase for an address that didn’t exist. When he returned home, he found his wife, Julia Wallace, murdered. Though the police found Wallace's alibi sufficient, James believes with certainty—though it's unclear what methods of deduction she used--that the original detective team was being naïve, and that Wallace was indeed the killer.
“Ripperology” is the study of the still-unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper, and there are magazines and comic books dedicated to the guy. American author Patricia Cornwell is pretty sure she's solved the murder, though. In 2001, believing that influential German-born artist Walter Sickert was the Ripper, she bought 30 of his paintings, in a quest for evidence of her theory. She is said to have done some ripping herself, destroying one of Sickert’s paintings in order to find DNA samples that would match those on letters purportedly sent by the Ripper to Scotland Yard in the 1880s. No DNA was found, and Sickert experts believe Cornwell is mistaken. Cornwell lays out her theory of the case in her 2002 book “Portrait of a Killer.”
Poison pen, happy end
"Queen of Crime" Agatha Christie wrote more than 200 detective and mystery novels and short stories, but there is one method of murder she used more than any other: poison. One source puts the number of poisonings in her books at 83. Christie's fascination with all things toxic might be explained by her biography. As a nurse in World War I, she worked in the apothecary and was dreadfully afraid of mixing up bottles and giving wounded soldiers poison instead of medicine. And yet, Christie’s familiarity with poisons paid off more than she would ever know. In 1976 (coincidentally, the year Christie died), a London nurse, who had read “The Pale Horse,” in which Christie describes the effects of thallium poisoning, recognized the very same symptoms in a 19-month-old girl and alerted the doctors. The early diagnosis, which turned out to be correct, saved the little girl’s life.