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How World War One shaped our bestselling author

Agatha Christie: expert in drugs and poisons. Hulton Archive/Getty

Agatha Christie has sold more than two billion books, says Lucy Worsley in the FT – “more – as the cliché goes – than any others save Shakespeare and The Bible”. In researching a biography of her, I’ve become convinced that the First World War was the “vital experience” that made her a detective novelist to begin with. Born into an upper-middle-class family in the then-elegant seaside resort of Torquay, she grew up familiar with the quintessential Christie setting: the country house. “Of course there had been no question of her working.” She describes her girlhood as spent simply “waiting for The Man”.

But when war broke out, Christie began helping at the hospital hastily set up in the Torquay town hall. Mopping floors and carrying amputated limbs to be incinerated exposed her to the macabre; jostling along with professional nurses and being bossed around by rude doctors gave her insight into the subtleties of class resentment. “In her writing career to come, doctors would be her most homicidal profession.”

She eventually, and fatefully, moved to the hospital dispensary, learning which chemical compounds were lifesaving and which were deadly. It was sitting here, surrounded by “drugs and poisons”, that her thoughts first turned to murder. Aged 24, Christie wrote her first, virtually unknown piece of fiction: a satirical coroner’s report published in a “jokey handmade hospital magazine”. Investigating a mysterious death in the hospital, the coroner questioned the doctors, the nurses, the “lady dispensers”, but they all had a different story. The closed cast of characters, the alibis, even the “light and satirical tone” that defined Christie’s later novels: “the ingredients were all there”.