Poisoning + Science + Murder = #DIYSciFilm

Gather round, mes amis, and prepare to exercise your little grey cells with this recap of July’s #DIYSciFilm event–in which our DIY Science Zone experts apply their chemistry smarts to the 1990 TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Recovering from the horrors of World War I, British Army officer Arthur Hastings hopes to find peace and quiet at a country manor in the English countryside. But when the matriarch dies during the night from strychnine poisoning, Hastings enlists the help of an old friend staying nearby with other war refugees to help solve the murder: former Belgian police detective Hercule Poirot.

DIY Scientists Torrey Stenmark and Raychelle Burks are both chemists and murder mystery fans, and their interest was piqued by the poisoning storyline. They had cause for confidence in the scientific accuracy of what they were about to watch:

Things were off to a simmeringly suspicious start with awkward dinner scenes, questionable husbands, an abundance of redheads, and insinuations of murder at every turn.

Not content to stick to science, the livetweeters also delved into the interesting historical notes and talking points provided by the show, which was based on Christie’s first novel, published in 1920. For us, the story is a period piece, but when it was written it was steeped in current and recent events, some of them very real and personal to Christie:

The pacing of murder mysteries was also a bit different back in those days, unlike modern dramas that reveal the corpse in the cold open.

Then, 30+ minutes in, strychnine strikes! It’s the go-to poison of many discerning writers over the years, plus George R. R. Martin. [Insert rimshot here.]

The livetweeters gave the poisoning portrayal some mixed reviews:

Kathryn Harkup, in addition to being a science communicator and chemist, is the author of Author of A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (out this September). Kathryn dropped some strychnine knowledge:

The mystery’s solution hinges on a chemical property that delays the effect of the strychnine–the kind of tricksy twist that Agatha Christie loved. (And her non-pharmaceutical-dispenser readers like me hated–I never had a hope of figuring out howdunnit!) Kathryn Harkup broke it down for us in the livetweet:

I wanted to capture the fashion commentary, but there was just too much to embed it all! Highlights include Poirot’s “exquisite patent leather pointy toe shoes,” Evie’s “sensible shoes,” the point at which we reached “critical mass of tweed,” and drooling over Poirot’s “exquisite leather case of chemicals and tools” and purple writing case. (What? Those are totally accessories!)

All in all, it was a great evening. We learned a little history, we learned a little chemistry/biology, and we were wowed by one Belgian detective’s ridiculous waxed mustache.

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Follow Torrey Stenmark (@tereshkova2001) and Raychelle Burks (@DrRubidium) for the next #DIYSciFilm livetweet event. Or, if you can’t wait that long, join Jason Thibeault (@lousycanuck) on Saturday at 8pm Central time/6pm Pacific, when he livetweets his adventures with Britney Spears’ 2002 movie Crossroads, which he’s watching as his Act of Whimsy in celebration of the fact that our DIY Science Zone fundraiser has passed $500–and don’t forget to donate to the Zone!

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