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Is this cheating?
blaisepascal
I just finished reading Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which was her first published novel, and first story featuring Hercule Poirot.

At the end of the book, Poirot kindly points out all the clues he saw (and clearly pointed out to the reader at the time) that lead to the solution. It does a good job of saying "I laid it all out, and you could have seen it if you were as clever as Poirot".

There is one aspect of the final solution I find troubling, though, and makes me wonder if it should be considered as cheating on Ms. Christie's part.



In the story, it is established very early on that the victim died of strychnine poisoning. The description of the death matches what Wikipedia says strychnine poisoning is like. I've no reason to doubt anything said about that.

It is also established that the victim regularly drank a prescribed tonic that contained strychnine, drawn up by a professional pharmacist according to a standard pharmacopoeia of the day. It was stated at the inquest that the tonic, in and of itself, would not have caused the poisoning, as strychnine isn't all that accumulative, not without showing symptoms before then.

Also established was that the victim occasionally used bromide pills to help her sleep. The bromide pills were made at the dispensary at a local hospital by a member of the victim's household. It was also established that she had ran out of bromide pills a couple of days before the death, so the pills couldn't have been poisoned and caused her death.

However, (at least) two things weren't revealed until the classic "Now is the time to reveal to all whom the murderer is." scene.

1st, earlier in the book Poirot had a sample of cocoa analyzed, even though at the inquest the attending doctor had testified that an analysis of the cocoa turned up no strychnine. Poirot had found out that the doctor had visited the house the night of the murder, exclaimed "that changes everything", and ran off to have a sample of the cocoa independently analyzed. Poirot declined to tell the narrator the results of the analysis, but at the reveal, announced that he had the cocoa analyzed for a sedative, not strychnine, and that it did, indeed, contain a sleeping agent. This explained why the strychnine took longer than the customary 15min-1hr to act, and why the household member in the next room slept through the whole affair. (For the nit-pickers, Christie wrote that he had it tested for a narcotic, which at the time meant a sleep-inducer, not an illicit drug.)

2nd, Poirot read from a standard pharmacopoeia of the day that while strychnine HCl was water soluble, strychnine bromide was not, and that a standard formula of the day which mixed the two in a tonic would cause the strychnine to precipitate out of solution, and furthermore that at least one person had died from accidentally consuming the stuff in the bottom of the bottle in her last dose.

So the method of murder was to add some bromide pills to her strychnine tonic, and then arrange to be away two weeks later when she would be taking the last, fatal, dose. Since the murderer would have a clear alibi out of the house when the fast-acting acute poison would do the job, the murderer wouldn't get caught.

(And they would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for that meddling Belgian...)

These two points, crucial to wrapping up the case, were not properly presented to the reader such that they could have been integrated into any theories the reader may have had. Nothing Poirot did indicated that he suspected the cocoa may have had a sedative in it, and the narrator was given to believe that Poirot suspected the attending doctor may have had a hand in the incident. Poirot was also deliberately closemouthed about the results of the analysis, telling the narrator that he didn't want to state the results just yet, but that they were what he expected. The difficulty in rousing the woman in the room next door was mentioned, but that was the only evident fact that might have suggested sedation. This seems like poor cricket to me.

More seriously, the murder plot hinged upon a fact of chemistry (the aqueous metathesis of strychnine HCl and KBr) which was not discussed until the reveal, nor do I think it reasonable to assume that the average reader would have known. Several of the characters in the book had dispensary or medical training, and none of them considered it. The attending doctor doing the post mortem was described as a world-renown toxicologist, knew the deceased was taking both a strychnine tonic and bromides and did not think to test the tonic bottle for residue of strychnine bromide. Given that the use of the bromide in the tonic was necessary to allow the murderers the time to arrange their alibis, the late reveal is seriously poor cricket.

For those who've read this far, or are otherwise familiar with the book, did Christie cheat, in your opinion?

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Yes, it was a cheat. She is famous for that. Actually, from what I can gather, it's only recently that the idea of telling all the clues to the reader came to the fore.

People may be confused by the movies and series that were done, where they gave all the clues to the viewer to let them solve it. Agatha did not do that. (If she did, it was an accident.)

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