Is it possible that Agatha Christie unwittingly provided a template for people who actually want to commit a murder? It is often suggested that ‘copycat’ killers base their methods on information supplied in a book or a film. In most cases, though, closer inspection reveals that the truth is rather more complicated.
The Christie novel that has given rise to most debate in this context is The Pale Horse. Graham Young, the poisoner, was said to have read the book. Given that it contains an accurate description of the properties of a rare poison – Christie’s expertise derived from her days as a nurse – the Daily Mail speculated that Young’s choice of method had been influenced by the book. The report caused Christie needless distress. It was not even clearly established that Young ever read her work, let alone made any meaningful use of it.
Yet The Pale Horse earned a mention from John Douglas, the psychological profiler from Quantico, who became renowned as the FBI’s ‘mindhunter’. In The Anatomy of Motive, he describes a case in Florida, where the book was found in the home of a murderer who used the poison to commit a crime intended to be ‘undetectable’. Again, however, any suggestion that the novel was used as a teach-yourself-homicide textbook stretches credulity beyond breaking point.
But there is more to be said about The Pale Horse – in particular, its benign influence. In 1975, Christie received a letter from a woman in Latin America which claimed that, as a result of reading the book, she had been able to thwart a case of attempted murder. There is more supporting evidence, though, for a case which occurred shortly after Christie died. A nurse was on duty at the bedside of a child dying of an undiagnosed ailment. She passed the time by reading the novel and recognised the symptoms. As a result, the child’s life was saved. Even when it comes to her description of how rare poisons work, the influence of Agatha Christie is, overall, undoubtedly an influence, not for evil, but for good.