Britain's grande dame of arsenic-and-old-lace thrillers, Agatha Christie, 81, was very upset. So was her husband, Sir Max Mallowan, who wondered aloud to reporters "if this fellow read her book and learned anything from it."
The book was The Pale Horse, a vintage Christie whodunit (1961) in which the villain plots to kill some factory workers with thallium, a tasteless, soluble and highly toxic substance that had never before been used on humans as a poison in Britain. The "fellow" was Graham Frederick Young, 24, who did precisely what Dame Agatha predicted could be done. Last month he was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering two of his fellow workers at a small photographic-equipment factory in Bovingdon, Hertfordshire, by dosing their tea and coffee with thallium.
Last year, Young had been hired by the factory as an assistant to the storekeeper, Robert Egle, 60, who died mysteriously eleven weeks later. The autopsy revealed nothing, but meanwhile, workers at the plant were troubled by a strange "bug" that caused vomiting, temporary paralysis, hallucinations and loss of hair.
In November, a second employee died, also of causes unknown. The next day a special meeting of the workers was called to discuss whether the deaths and ailments were the result of industrial pollution. Young spoke up, amazing his colleagues with his detailed knowledge of toxins and medical terms.
The suspicious owner of the plant alerted local police and, in due course, Young's shabby digs in Hertfordshire were searched. There police found "enough thallium to keep a pharmacy in business for an entire month." Phials and bottles of the stuff, along with containers of other poisons, stood in neat rows on his windowsill. As it turned out, Young was such a master of poisons that he knew exactly what dosage to administer to each of his victims in order to slow their dying and disguise the cause. He even kept a diary detailing his "experiments" on workmates, in which each was identified by a letter in the alphabet. A typical entry: "JI regard him as a friend so it's out of the question." Later, J got poison in his tea anyway.
While the plot might have been cribbed from Agatha Christie, the main character seems to have sprung straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon. At the age of 14 Young was sentenced to 15 years in the maximum-security Broadmoor mental hospital for having attempted to poison a classmate, his father and his sister. His stepmother died shortly after his confinement. Young admitted during the trial last month that she was the first person he had poisoned with thallium.
Young was released from Broadmoor last year despite evidence that he seems to have conducted certain interesting pharmacological "experiments" there. He was once caught growing deadly nightshade, and also taught fellow inmates how to get an easy high on tea by running carbon monoxide from a gasoline burner through it with a hose.
His release by Broadmoor officials, who thought him cured, has caused an uproar in Britain, where the policy toward mental patients with records of violence has generally been quite liberal. Home Secretary Reginald Maulding has ordered a special inquiry into why Young was set free.