[Bridget and Luke are discussing Amy Gibbs, who died from drinking hat paint]
Bridget said: “I’ve thought all along that there was something wrong about it.”
“Hat paint, to begin with.”
“What do you mean, hat paint?”
“Well about 20 years ago, people did paint hats – one season you had a pink straw, next season a bottle of hat paint and it became dark blue – then perhaps another bottle and a black hat! But nowadays – hats are cheap – tawdry stuff to be thrown away when out of fashion.”
“Even girls of the class of Amy Gibbs?”
“I’d be more likely to paint a hat than she would! Thrift’s gone out. And there’s another thing. It was red hat paint.”
“And Amy Gibbs had red hair – carrots!”
“You mean it doesn’t go together?”
Bridget nodded. “You wouldn’t wear a scarlet hat with carroty hair. It’s the sort of thing a man wouldn’t realize…”
observations: Murder is Easy wouldn’t make it onto my top 5 list of Agatha Christie books, nor my top 10 either, but I love this bit of detection: the perfect Clothes in Books moment. It demonstrates clever thinking, and as Bridget says, a woman’s clue. There’s also the casual snobbery - ‘girls of the class of Amy Gibbs’ - that Christie was surely reflecting, not inventing. And the point she makes that posh girls can end up looking shabbier than low-class ones - this features also in The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger. There is a reference later to the silly cheap silk stockings young Amy insisted on wearing – as in The Mystery of the Blue Train, and my Guardian article on the subject.
I also like the reference to the disposability of fashion – every generation thinks the new one is much more careless, less thrifty. ‘They buy new when they have a perfectly good old one in the cupboard!’ Her complaint sounds very modern, so how splendid that people were saying it in 1939. There should be a name for this kind of item, where you are surprised to find an idea or complaint was not invented right now by your contemporaries.
My good friend Curtis Evans, of the Passing Tramp website, has just happened to point out an article in the Pharmacy Times on poison in Christie – it doesn’t mention hat paint, so I will offer my own researches in the subject…
I tried to find more references to hat paint in fiction, but there seems to be only Agatha Christie – I probably need a hardware shop’s catalogue to find out more. But there IS a reference to it in a document from the US Environment Protection Agency: as it says in the book, the paint is oxalic acid, and one of the uses of this is listed as ‘bleaching straw hats.’ This is repeated in many chemistry books, one suspects that it has been copied from one to another. And oxalic acid is used to restore a soldier’s helmet on this blog, helpfully called War Hats.com.
Back to the book, which doesn't have Poirot or Marple, but has a bit of everything else - rich men, spinsters, doctors, beautiful women, all tied up and dumped into a village with a serial killer on the loose. There is also witchcraft and a rather ill-natured portrait of an antique-dealer who is clearly meant to be gay. I liked his visitors coming down for a witches’ Sabbath:
A man with shorts, spectacles and a lovely plum-coloured silk shirt. A female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals. A fat man in a lavender suit and co-respondent shoes.Not exactly blending in at the local pub. These fancy-dress goers (from an entry on Laurie R King’s Justice Hall) perhaps give a flavour:
Christie quotes several times from the Frances Cornford poem of 1910, To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train (it’s the one with the line O fat white woman whom nobody loves) – this is quite unusual. Although Christie was very well-read, and very much au fait with current trends, in her books she tended to use cultural references from the far past.
The top picture of different-coloured straw hats is from Kristine’s ever-useful photostream.