By Silvia Baučeková.
First appearance: Prague Journal of English Studies, 2014.
Expanded to book length as Dining Room Detectives: Analysing Food in the Novels of Agatha Christie (2015) (for sale HERE).
Article (12 pages).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
"Through the motif of poisoning Christie was once again able to make use of the technique of distancing and turning the homely and familiar into the uncanny and dangerous."Freud tried to weld sex and death into two sides of the same coin, as a unified psychological condition that, if you let yourself think too much about it, takes all the fun out of dating. Over the course of her writing career, as you'll see momentarily, Agatha Christie spent a great deal of it poisoning her characters with everyday foods, thereby unifying in our mind afternoon tea on the veranda with the morgue downtown and inadvertently taking all the fun out of scones.
As a follow-up to the previous post, here's an article that focuses narrowly on Agatha Christie's use of food as a plot driver, as a device to foreshadow coming events, and as a means of gauging character—but (SPOILER WARNING!) you'd better know your Christie, because the author doesn't hesitate to reveal whodunit.
"Food and drink are basic, ordinary, commonplace, and as such they might easily be taken for granted. This paper attempted to demonstrate the paradoxical nature of food and its symbolic potential within the framework of the classic detective novel. Food and detective fiction share a number of characteristics: they both rely to a great extent on ritualization, both are produced following a formula, and both are based on the inevitable interconnection of life and death. Moreover, food can become an especially useful tool in constructing classic detective stories, as are those by Agatha Christie, since they are frequently centred on a 'cosy mystery', i.e., a murder in an ordinary, domestic environment of which food is an indispensa-ble part."
". . . as Alexander Walker observes, in addition to functioning as a literary device, food as a symbol can also gain a more sinister undertone in crime stories. Food, crime authors remind the reader, can be dangerous: it can conceal the criminal, distract the victim, or it can even be transformed into a murder weapon."
"Christie, although on one hand exploiting the traditional cultural symbolism of food as representing safety, peace, and the home also made use of this more problematic aspect of eating. Firstly, she depicted the dining ritual as something governed by strict laws that cannot be bent in the slightest, otherwise disaster ensues. The broken food ritual can be a bad omen. When a member of the dinner party is late or does not show up, it often signals that she/he is in grave danger (By the Pricking of My Thumbs 189) or has already been murdered (Endless Night 216)."
"Christie often made her criminals hedonists who enjoy life and always welcome the opportunity to eat well . . ., using the traditional notions of food and eating as safe, and of the personality of the well-fed jolly gourmand as inherently good to mask the criminal and misdirect the reader’s suspicion. Thus a criminal’s connection to food can enable her/him to commit the crime unsuspected. Such deflecting of suspicion is so successful that 'it seems that the victim often gratefully received the fatal dose in some delicious little dish served up by an attentive murderer' (Jakeman)."
- Here's the Books-a-Million overview of Silvia Baučeková's book:
"In the structuralist understanding as proposed by John G. Cawelti, a classical detective novel is defined as a formula which contains prescribed elements and develops in a predefined, ritualistic manner. When described in this way, the crime fiction formula very closely resembles a recipe: when one cooks, they also add prescribed ingredients in a predefined way in order to produce the final dish. This surprising parallel serves as the starting point for this book's analysis of classical detective novels by Agatha Christie. Here,
a structuralist approach to Golden Age crime fiction is complemented by methodology developed in the field of food studies in order to demonstrate the twofold role that food plays in Christie's novels: namely, its function as an element of the formula – a literary device – but also as a cultural sign. Christie employed food on various different levels of her stories in order to portray characters, construct plots, and depict settings. What is more, incorporating domesticity and food in her novels helped her fundamentally alter the rigid conventions of the crime fiction genre as it developed in the nineteenth century, and enabled her to success-fully introduce the character of the female detective and to feminise the detective novel as such." — (HERE)
- The book's first 42 pages, including the Introduction, are online at the Google Books preview (HERE) and also (HERE).
- If you're REALLY interested in pursuing this subject and find Victorian Gothic fiction
more to your taste, there's a book-length thesis (which, due to time limitations, we won't
"The Subtle Art: Poison in Victorian Literature."
By Cheryl Blake Price.
Thesis, 187 pages (163 as text), 2012.
Online (HERE) (PDF).
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
1. CHAPTER ONE: POISON AND THE VICTORIANS
2. CHAPTER TWO: POISONOUS KNOWLEDGE: BULWER’S LUCRETIA AND THE REVISIONING OF L.E.L’S ETHEL CHURCHILL
3. CHAPTER THREE: PHYSIOGNOMY, SENSATION, AND THE ‘INVISIBLE’ POISONER IN DICKEN’S ‘HUNTED DOWN’ AND ELIOT’S ‘THE LIFTED VEIL’
4. CHAPTER FOUR: MEDICAL BLUEBEARDS: GOTHIC MEDICINE AND THE POISONING DOCTOR IN THE FICTION OF ELLEN WOOD
5. CHAPTER FIVE: HYPNOTIC POISON: FORENSIC SCIENCE AND UNCONSCIOUS CRIME IN CHARLES WARREN ADAMS’S THE NOTTING HILL MYSTERY AND WILKIE COLLINS’S THE MOONSTONE
6. CONCLUSION: THE POISONER OF THE FUTURE
Works Cited (17 pages)
Other publications by this author are (HERE) and (HERE).