In December 2010, the British Medical Journal published an article by Herbert G. Kinnell, a retired NHS Consultant Psychiatrist, which discussed Agatha Christie’s work and included a table that showed that the medical profession was by far the most murderous occupation within it.¹
The article quoted that “Christie had a … partiality to murderous medical people who have both the specialized knowledge and the opportunity to administer such lethal agents.”
While, logically, there is an element of truth to this, there are certain elements from the author’s own life which may also have contributed to the way that doctors, in particular, are portrayed throughout her work, from The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920 right through to Postern of Fate in 1973.
Agatha Christie learned early on not to have too much faith in the medical profession. In her Autobiography she discusses her father’s last days:
At increasingly short intervals my father had attacks of pain and breathlessness during the night, and my mother sat up with him, altering his position and giving him such medicaments as had been ordered by the last doctor.
As always there was a pathetic belief in the last doctor whom we had consulted, and the latest regime that we adopted. Faith does a lot – faith, novelty, a dynamic personality in a doctor – but it cannot in the end deal with the real organic complaint that is at the bottom of it.
When she began work at a dispensary during the First World War, her views started to set:
The ignorant layman … believes that the doctor studies your case individually, considers what drugs would be best for it, and writes a prescription to that effect. I soon found that the drug prescribed by Dr Whittick, and the tonic prescribed by Dr James and the tonic prescribed by Dr Vyner were all quite different, and particular, not to the patient, but to the doctor. (An Autobiography)
Such an experience informed her character Miss Marple, who, while unimpressed with the newer generation of doctors, was not exactly convinced by the previous one:
I always feel that the young doctors are only too anxious to experiment. After they’ve whipped out all our teeth, and administered quantities of very peculiar glands, and removed bits of our insides, they then confess that nothing can be done for us. I really prefer the old-fashioned remedy of big black bottles of medicine. After all, one can always pour them down the sink. (A Murder is Announced)
But it was Agatha Christie’s time as a nurse in the wartime hospital at Torquay Town Hall that hardened her heart:
I soon learned to spring to attention, to stand, a human towel-rail, waiting meekly while the doctor bathed his hands, wiped them with the towel, and not bothering to return it to me, flung it scornfully on the floor. Even those doctors who were, by secret nursing opinion, despised as below standard, in the ward now came into their own, and were accorded a veneration more appropriate to higher beings. (An Autobiography)
No wonder she took some form of revenge via her writing.
If one discounts the various spouses, family members, criminal masterminds and lunatics who form the majority of the culprits within Agatha Christie’s fiction, her murderous characters come from quite a variety of backgrounds. Here is a selection, by no means comprehensive but one that should give an idea. The murderers include
One major, an artist, a dentist, an actor, an archaeologist, a judge, a dancer, a gigolo, a model, a solicitor, a governess, a pharmacist, an actress, a builder, a playwright;
Two secretaries, two politicians, two knights, two students, two nurses;
In addition to the seven, whom for obvious reasons I will not name (indeed one is never given a name), there are two murderous impostor doctors working for The Big Four, two at the centre of drug smuggling rackets (The Capture of Cerberus, Peril at End House), one who deliberately falsely identifies a corpse he is examining (Taken at the Flood), and one, struck off for performing back-street abortions, who assists the gang that robs the Irish Mail (At Bertram’s Hotel).
Getting away from the hospital doctors, specialists and general practitioners and moving toward the lunatic fringe, we find Dr Barron, a bacteriologist preparing to unleash a pandemic on the world (Destination Unknown), and Dr Andersen, one who has established a cult with the intention of killing every member of it (The Flock of Geryon). Neither succeeds.
The more law-abiding of her medics are often given short shrift:
Dr Adams: obstinate as a pig (The Cornish Mystery)
Dr Bernard: rather an old ass (The Tragedy at Marston Manor)
Dr Horriston: an unpleasant brute (The Case of the Missing Lady)
Dr Rawlinson: an old dodderer (The Thumb-mark of St Peter)
Dr Blacklock: old-fashioned, narrow-minded and obstinate, a pig-headed old bully (A Murder is Announced)
Dr Maverick: distinctly abnormal (They do it with Mirrors)
Dr Coles: believed what he wanted to believe (A Christmas Tragedy)
There are charlatans in abundance in the short story collection The Hound of Death, including nerve specialists, mental specialists, an expert on psychical research and a ‘Doctor of the Soul’.
To be fair, there are also the some likeable members of the medical profession in these stories, most notably Miss Marple’s own Dr Haydock. He, however, is sensible enough never to prescribe her anything (knowing she would not take it) apart from a holiday or some more ‘unravelling …’
This is only a brief overview but it seems clear that Agatha Christie’s experience of the medics in the Torquay town hall Hospital coloured her view of their profession and this is reflected by the characters she created to personify it. In summary:
Agatha Christie’s doctors killed far more people than they cured.
¹ Agatha Christie’s Doctors, BMJ 14/12/2010.
The Worst of the Lot
There is one rather frightening doctor who is clearly not meant to come across as mad, obstinate, fussy or incompetent. This is the workaholic Dr John Franklin, with whom Captain Hastings’ daughter Judith is involved in Curtain. Here is a sample of his thinking:
‘If an imbecile – a cretin – dies, it’s a good thing … It’s an idea of mine, you know, that about eighty percent of the human race ought to be eliminated. We’d get on much better without them.’
Curtain was written in the early 1940s, at a time when death camps were being built by the Nazis as the final solution to rid the world of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and, yes, ‘cretins’. Such camps may only have been rumoured at the time, but even so …
Dr Franklin clearly has an influence on Judith, who echoes his views:
‘Unfit, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be painlessly put away.’
Curtain is in many ways an unhappy book, and a painful one to read.