Calamitous Poison: The Making of Ode to Agatha (Part 1)

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“What calamitous poison flows through her brain?”  Although that line is meant as a piece of melodramatic and not-very-good poetry delivered by grande dame, Simone Davenport, the question it raises is interesting.  Dame Agatha Christie is the best selling detective novelist on the face of the Earth.  Over two billion copies of her books have been sold.  She has smashed world records left and right.  Her plotting is legendary.  How can we forget such stories as Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and And Then There Were None?  With video game adaptations like The A.B.C. Murders and a new film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express coming out this November, Agatha Christie is still a popular and powerful force in the genre.  So how did we go about taking on the intimidating task of creating our own ode to Agatha?  Writer/director, Daniel Stallings, will share his process in creating this tale inspired by and in honor of Hercule Poirot’s first case.

CALAMITOUS POISON: THE MAKING OF ODE TO AGATHA (Part 1)

Dame Agatha Christie is my hero.  I first encountered the Queen of Crime at age eleven when I sat with my parents watching the 1976 adaptation of Murder of the Orient Express on two VHS tapes.  I usually didn’t love watching movies with others.  This movie was different.  By the end of the first tape, I begged my parents to put in the second one despite it being a school night.  By the end of the film, I was barely an inch away from the screen, captivated by the story that unveiled before me.  I had found something special then.  I found my calling–to write mysteries as creative and complex as Agatha Christie.  It’s been a lifelong passion and devotion.

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So I was naturally very honored and terrified when Ridge Writers approached me to create an event as a tribute to Agatha Christie and her book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  How do I write a show that is both an ode to her work, an interactive mystery, and still have a little fun with the story?  I had to go back to the source material.

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (First edition, 1920, John Lane Company)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first published in October 1920 by the John Lane Company.  It was set in July 1917 towards the end of the Great War (World War I) where Captain Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s long-time friend and chronicler of cases, rests with friends at the grand Styles Court after being injured in combat.  Emily Inglethorp, newly married, is the elderly, powerful, and extremely wealthy mistress of Styles, who is very patriotic and compassionate about the war effort, including helping refugees from Belgium such as Hercule Poirot.  One night in mid-July, she is suddenly seized by horrifying seizures and dies before help can be summoned.  Cause of death: Strychnine.  Enter Hercule Poirot to solve his first case in published fiction, a baffling and complex mystery such as only the Queen of Crime could produce.  And a legend is born.

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To create the story for Ode to Agatha, I wanted to pay homage to the original story set in Styles, but change many of the details to make a totally brand new work.  I knew there were key touch points from the original novel I wanted to hit on.  I needed a murder to solve.  A grand country house near an English village in the countryside.  A wealthy mistress of the house who will be the victim.  Stepchildren.  A younger second husband.  A companion.  And poison.  Agatha Christie was an expert on poison, having been a dispenser during the wars, and most of her fictional victims suffered that fate.

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In researching death by poison for the show, I turned to an excellent resource on the science behind Agatha Christie’s murders.  A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup contained a chapter on strychnine, the poison in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and its chemical makeup, its use between the wars, and how it worked.  That chapter gave me new ideas about what to use and how to use it.  I didn’t want to employ the same method from her book, but there are references to how she used strychnine in her mysteries.

Connections I made from that book were fascinating and different, and I tied it all up in a neat bow that I called Ode to Agatha.  I hope she would be proud.

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Dame Agatha Christie

If you want a little bonus clue to solve the mystery of Ode to Agatha, read The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  Get a feel for the source and understand Agatha’s thought process.  But remember that the story isn’t the same as Ode to Agatha.  At a Master Mystery Production, expect the unexpected.

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The story has unfolded.  But how will we turn the two-dimensional into a three-dimensional interactive experience?  We’ll learn more about the gameplay design of Ode to Agatha and its unique inspiration in Opening Gambit: The Making of Ode to Agatha (Part 2).

–Master Mystery Productions

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