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The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison
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The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

3.72 of 5 stars 3.72  ·  rating details  ·  253 ratings  ·  34 reviews
How can a chemical we need on a daily basis to keep us healthy be fatal at a different dose? Why should elements that are intrinsically dangerous be used in medicine? This book shows how humans have used chemicals to both help and harm one another throughout history, and the chemistry behind it all.
Paperback, 418 pages
Published September 1st 2006 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2005)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 682)
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Greg
I was expecting this to be a true crime book, and there are certainly aspects of that in the book, but really it's more than that. It's a scholarly look at several elements (mercury, antimony, lead, arsenic, and thallium) and their negative effects on the generations that either knowingly or unknowingly encountered them.

Emsley really did his research, this book overflows with details - both historical and technical. He seems like both a chemist and a historian, but unfortunately not a story tel
...more
Kate
A very interesting book -- I mean, where else could I have ever learned about the guy who poisoned the Coke of his noisy neighbors with thallium? The breadth of the book was perfect for the sort of scope the author wanted to achieve, trying to reach the academically competent, especially those with a knowledge of chemistry. Tackling the biggest names in the history of poison, Emsley makes a valiant effort at balancing chemical information with human interest stories. My problems with the book ar ...more
Melinda
This book is unique and very worthwhile to read! I would count it as a 'living book' about chemistry. Living because while it explains the chemistry behind many elements known now to be poisonous, it is told not from a dry technical perspective but within the context of people that were affected by living with medical treatments that were actually poisonous dosing and other situations where they came in contact with these various elements.

Each element is explained from a chemical structure pers
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Tracey
Each section focuses on a specific element/poison. Emsley discusses its place in history, how it affects the human body & describes famous cases of its use. He avoids getting overly-scientific, providing additional information in an appendix; and is very in-depth in the historical overview of each element so far.

This book has confirmed some info I already knew ("mad as a hatter" = mercury poisoning) as well as provided new insights (arsenic poisoning from green dye in wallpaper in Victorian
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Kate
A history of murders committed with elemental poisons - Mercury, Arsenic, Lead, etc, as well as poisoning deaths that might have been murders or are just due to elements - the wonders of arsenic leeching out of Victorian wallpapers, etc. The facts were fascinating (even the parts that just descibed the elements & their effects on humans) although the writing isn't perfect. Fun to read.

As in his other books, Emsley could've used a good editor and a sense of humility. He states conclusions pre
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Meaghan
This might be called "Elements of Murder: a History of Metal Poison," for those are the only kinds of poisons the author is concerned with. He goes in-depth about mercury, lead, antimony, arsenic and thallium, and pays lip service to other elemental poisons.

Contrary to what the title would have you believe, this is not a true crime book but rather, simply, a history of poison -- no matter how it was delivered and why. The author, a chemist, explains the uses and abuses of the various poisons thr
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Diana
Very interesting information about the various poisonous elements (arsenic, thallium) and how they have been employed for nefarious purposes, however the writing style was pedantic and uninteresting, not to mention in need of a good editor. As a chemist I appreciated the technical knowledge of the author, but as a reader it was almost painful to get through. Typos and confusingly constructed sentences abound and a good flow of concepts is absent, almost as if the author was writing a poorly plan ...more
Claudia
A very interesting book from start to finish, including the lovely cover work, which so convinced my Mother that she thought I'd torn her book.

A very thorough explanation is given of the uses of these poisonous elements, why they're poisonous, what damage they do and what remedies can be used against them. In the section on each poison there is also at least one discription of a case where it has been used to poison people, the process that the murderer went through and how they were caught.

I al
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Jilly
While I definitely enjoyed this book, I'd say the jacket copy is a bit misleading - while the science involved is never incomprehensible, it is definitely of great interest to the author, and he spends at least one of the few chapters assigned to each element talking about things like how a chemical methylates, or changes forms when coming into contact with X, or what-have-you.

At times, a bit more textbook than the fun pulp read I expected.

Interesting nonetheless, and if you are capable of legi
...more
Mary Good
Gave up on it. Too dry for my tastes
M
Oct 26, 2008 M rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommended to M by: NPR
Each section covers a chemical element. First Emsley explains how it interacts with the body, and then he recounts various murders from history using the element. Ironically, I believe the anecdotes were included to make the book more appealing, but I was often bored by them. I'd skip ahead to the next section on the chemistry and biology of the element and ignore the anecdotes. In the end, the book was too long and too uneven so I gave myself permission to stop reading it.
Fernando del Alamo
Se trata de una historia de los venenos y de cómo han sido utilizados en la hstoria. Me ha gustado más que el libro "Historia del veneno" de Adela Muñoz Páez, pues hace más hincapié en los casos de envenenamiento, los productos utilizados y cómo afectan al cuerpo.

Ojo porque es un libro largo y el tema al final se hace un tanto pesado. Uno dice ¡basta ya de envenenamientos!

Para los químicos, biólogos o médicos debería ser una delicia.
Ebony
this read a lot more like a book for science class than i had hoped. i wanted more murder and less elements but it was still an interesting read. it was fun to learn about the history of alchemy and just how far some people are willing to go to murder. also, interesting to learn about all of the "bad" elements that exist in our bodies and in our environment in general/naturally. a good read if you like science and history.
Killilea
a long series of sometimes ironic, often chatty tales of the use of metals as poisons throughout history. from Napoleon and Mozart up to Castro and Saddam, you might be surprised at what you find. but i do admit to being "in science" and finding metals really interesting, which helps to get through this long book. Emsley's non-fiction works on elements are really good too, if you're in to that kind of goat.
Andrew
Fascinating book, though it can get bogged down with numbers and quantities but the historical stories and anecdotes are amazing. it does become a bit a heavy read at times and quite challenging to read all in one go.
John Emsley certainly knows his subject and is his passion shows through. This is one to dip in to in between other lighter reading but if approached like that its brilliant.
Karen
The book was informative, and was mostly a collection of true short stories. But the editing was bad, up to and including some comments that should probably not have been made in print. Mostly it's missing words and repeated phrases, but it's still disappointing and at times frustrating to read. I don't know if I'll read the sequel.
Marta
Apr 08, 2009 Marta rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who like crime dramas!
Shelves: pop-science
Hey - people used to take antimony pills after a night of heavy drinking to help them puke! and also, they would poop out the pill and reuse it! and...um, poisoners usually get found out because they poison 18 people or tell everybody that they are really into poisoning.
Jane
Mar 29, 2008 Jane is currently reading it
A friend gave me this for my birthday, both for entertainment and to learn more about the homeopathic remedies made from these substances. I just started it and a few pages in it's already really interesting.
Mary
Heard John Emsley on NPR doing an interview about this book. Sounded so good that I went out and bought it. Great science and history lesson on metals and there poisonous nature.
Eric Knibbs
An especially useful book if, like me, you harbor the vague and ridiculous ambition of writing your own mystery novel someday. But entertaining even if you don't.
J-bone
This book is long and ultimately gets bogged down by its undying loyalty to chemical truth but has some seriously captivating scenes from murder/poison history.
Catherine Schaff-Stump
I feel so much smarter now!

A fascinating read, with lots of information not only on how these poisons work, but also on how they relate to other elements.

Lauren
Don't worry, you guys. I didn't get much in the way of ideas from this one. Not much.
Forensic science > homicidal poisons, these days.
Michaela Hayes
real interesting! but after martha lowenstein (psychopath) killed her daughter with thallium (poison) i stopped reading.
Ian
Here's my review on LibraryThing.
Kyoungjin Lim
Why poison is more lethal than a gun is that it make a human-being mere a chemical being.
Krystine
Awesome history of poisonous elements and the people who used them (purposefully and not) to kill!
Rebecca
This book so really fascinating in a gruesome, poison way! I really recommend it!!
Mary Jane
This is a decent read in small doses, even with long gaps between readings.
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