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The Poison Principle

3.44  ·  Rating details ·  214 ratings  ·  43 reviews
a memoir about family secrets and literary po
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published July 19th 2002 by Macmillan (first published September 30th 2001)
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Average rating 3.44  · 
Rating details
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Nick Davies
Nov 02, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
I've mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this book deals with a very interesting subject - both in terms of the author's personal family history and also regarding poisoning in general - and there is plenty of variety and breadth in the content of this quirky book. Bell comes over as intelligent and blessed with an interesting wit and willingness to touch on a wide range of aspects of the subject of this book - science, art, history, literature, even philosophy and psychology. It makes f ...more
Dec 04, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2009
Things I don't need:

1) A true crime book that turns into the history of poison.
2) A nonfiction book that uses over the top flowery language better suited for a Harelequinn Novel.
3) To know the dictionary's definition of executed. Any author still using this tranisition trick should be "executed" from the literary world unless they are in fifth grade and writing an essay on government.
4) Random vignettes of random people who have poisoned other random people in the past with random poisons.
5) An
Jennifer (JC-S)
‘Poison is rarely if ever perfect.’

In 1927, William Macbeth apparently poisoned two of his sons with strychnine. William Macbeth was Gail Bell’s grandfather, and he died before she was born. When Gail was ten, her grandfather’s sample case was delivered to her father. She opened one of the bottles in the case, and put the end of the stopper to her nose.

‘My father snatched it from my hand and said ‘Never, never do that. You could die.’

In 1980, Ms Bell spoke with her Great-Aunt Rose, six months b
Dec 18, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is a weird comparison to make, since the subject matter is very different, but I had the same problem with this book as I did with The Bling Ring: there's too much information and too little analysis. Bell decided to tackle her family history, the different concepts of poisoners throughout the entire history of time AND threw in a bunch of very literary prose that had nothing to do with real life. In the end, it was a lot of ideas thrown at you without much thought behind them.

The story ab
Deceit, betrayal, fact, inquiry and a whole of a lot of science. I learned a few things about poison and power, which I think was one of my favourite themes that the author explored.

I also admired the depth of research in poison history and poison stories that were so intriguing.

There were definitely times when I dozed off and whole minutes in which I tuned out the science, but it wasn't totally focused on that aspects and I was incredibly grateful for that.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend it,
Jun 04, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, memoir
I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did.
It takes a long, circuitous route to discover the truth about the poisoning of two of Bell's uncles, when they were infants. Using exceptional research, it tells the story of poisoning myths, poisoning in fiction and famous poisonings along the way - in a very rambling, and sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness fashion.
The vicarious side of me wanted much more sordid detail, so that's probably my failing, rather than Bell's.
Clare Snow
Mar 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: true crime aficionados
Everything I could want in a book:
- Murder
- a history of Poisons through the ages
- How-to on combing combining the above (as my boss pointed out when I explained the entire book to him at work. he is never eating anything I bake again)
- Crazy family antics
- Twists to die for, literally

And delicious narration by Wendy Bos as icing on my poison wolfsbane pie.
Cleopatra  Pullen
Jun 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: crime, non-fiction, own
this is one of those fascinating books where you don’t know quite what you are about to learn from one page to the next. If you too love learning more about poisons and those who administer them, you can’t go wrong with this book. Even for those of you who don’t have quite the same niche interest as me, there is plenty to ponder on the literary side, those myths, fairy tales through Shakespeare and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and taking in a few other’s along the way.

The backbone of the boo
Jun 26, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I don't usually go to the effort of writing reviews for bad books, because I feel for the most part that bad books usually are easily identified. For example, one does not usually pick up a Harlequin Romance expecting great literature. Or even much variation in plot.

This book is an exception. It was surprisingly bad, but the blurbs on the cover specifically describe otherwise, to my great disappointment. It was so annoying, I am going to list the reasons.
1) The book title includes the statement
Quite a satisfying non-fiction book about poisons, poisoners and the poisoned. The author’s family has its own poisoned past, the investigation of which she threads through the narrative. More of a “researched stream of consciousness”, as my friend Libby said, than a manifesto of any kind, I have to say I did get a bit frustrated towards the end with all Bell’s wafty semi-philosophical ramblings when all I wanted to know really was if her grandfather really poisoned his sons or not. (Obviously n ...more
Jan 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: family-secret
This was not the book I expected -- a pharmacist writing about a double murder in her family as someone with a personal connection to a poisoning case. The author ranges all over true crime, history, even mythology and folk tales as they relate to poisoning. Beautifully written -- almost poetic. Highly recommended.
A written documentary into the curious history of the study and use of poison, including the authors family skeletons. Scientific storytelling at its best. Listening to an audio version was a treat, such clever descriptions and interesting facts.
Dec 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Gail Bell, an Australian author, begins her book by telling us that in the 1920s, her grandfather poisoned two of his sons. (These were her father's older brothers.) Not surprisingly, family members generally avoided talking about this dark piece of history, and it was only when Bell began to investigate the story that relatives cautiously opened up about it.

This unusual book shows the results of Bell's investigations into the family 'secret' but teases the facts out amidst a series of intriguin
Oct 12, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
She isn't sure if she is a chemist or a historian, a poet, or an artist. What she isn't, is a good writer. This book tries to be everything, and succeeds at nothing. 3 hours I gave it, BORING!

The narration is pretty poor too. She would be great playing a dentist in a TV commercial, but as a narrator, nah, find someone who can read and emote.
May 25, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is biased. It is peppered with "strychnine" and "arsenic", while I was wanting more on "cyanide" but to no avail.

Actually I got this book in a fire sale long ago (I saw they shipped this from Taiwan for their fire sale, which is strange) but didn't read it. But a case in the news piqued my interest in cyanide, and I remembered I had this book.

I agree that this is hardly a usual novel, but a way to showcase literary works that utilise poison, written in a very literary and scientific
Andrea Hickman Walker
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
A book subtitled 'a memoir of family secrets and literary poisonings' promised an enthralling and involving read. Instead this was very much a curate's egg of a book: good in parts, but otherwise dull, long-winded and occasionally florid. The good parts were those that focused on the details - how poisons are produced, how they work and some fascinating case studies (not all of which were literary, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, Emma Bovary features heavily). The 'family secrets' story that f ...more
Jun 26, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who like history, medicene, poison stories
Recommended to Jeanette by: Pam
One of my friends gave me this book and I was disapointed with it. The summary on the back says that it's written by a woman who's grandfather killed two of his sons with poison (he was a dcotor) and she goes on a search of her family history to find out the facts. I think of the 269 pages, maybe 15 were about her story. The books is REALLY about different poisons, the history of poisons, short stories throughout history of people who poisoned and were poisoned. It was interesting, though a bit ...more
Roberta Guthrie
Jan 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A family secret,a mystery and a history of poison

At the heart of Bell's beautifully written tale of family tragedy is the family "secret" - her Grandfather murdered his son...and possibly another child years earlier. Certainly that's what the family believes , as well as half the town at the time. But did he? Was his child's tragic death the accidental poisoning the coroner said it was ? Using her expertise as a chemist and her extensive knowledge of poisons Bell attempts to solve her family's m
Sep 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Poison Principle

The Poison Principle is a captivating detective story that combines biography and the scientific exploration of poison and its history. Gail Bell trained as a chemist and was fascinated with the dark family secret that her grandfather murdered two of his young sons by poisoning before her own father was born. In an attempt to discover the truth, Bell not only painstakingly examines all the evidence available in regards to her own family narrative but also sheds light on histo
Dec 13, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who like light learning from their reading
Cocktail party tidbits of knowledge are scattered through here, interweaving with an indepth look at the poisonous family history of the author's own clan. Like many of the non-fiction books I read, I took my time savoring the knowledge intake (too long) and had to return it to the library before finishing.

Still, I met a boy because I knew the nitty gritty details of how Cleopatra killed herself. So there's that.

This will definitely rotate back someday and I'll finish the whole thing, but I've
I found this to be an interesting mix of memoir, mystery and the history of poisons and poisonings. Gail Bell's inspiration to write this was the story of her own grandfather, a quack tonic maker and snake oil salesman, who was supposed to have poisoned two of his sons. Gail herself became a chemist, leading her to dig into her family's hidden past, and question what drives people to poison others. (This book was published under Poison: A History and Family Memoir and The Poisoner - A Story of F ...more
Jan 25, 2013 rated it liked it
This book is a fascinating read - it is a mixture of family histories and the investigation work that went in to exploring it. It is also part science book since the author has a grounding in pharmacy and chemistry explaining the types and processes of poisons and their historical significance. This is a riveting book which educates on many levels. I will admit being a chemist myself this was of particular interest to me (no I am not going to poison anyone) since it brings what can be a very aca ...more
Sep 19, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating topic. (You may notice that I've read another book on poison.) A few interesting stories of historical poisoners. But lots and lots of the very sort of "flowery language" the author deparages. Probably not worth the effort. It seems as though the author wanted to write a really compelling story about a poisoning incident in the family. But she didn't have much material to go on, so she just wanders around the general topic. A frustrating read.
Mar 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was intrigued by the review of this book, and so I read it and was completely satisfied. An interesting look at poisons and poisoning through history, research the author had done in order to unravel an old family skeleton in the closet. The answer to the central question of what had happened 90 years ago to her father's two brothers was compelling, and I found the entire book fascinating.
Jan 14, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Each chapter starts with a tale of poisoning then goes in to a ramble, so I got to the point quite quickly where I skipped most of each chapter aefter the first few pages. They were interesting though.
Apr 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pre-2012
Well crafted structurally: the mystery of the family poisoning is drawn out cleverly through various fascinating digressions and case studies. Poetic and literary in places. An unusual non-fiction read.
Jul 08, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The book did not pique my interest much beyond the first few chapters, but I did give it a fair go until page 86...
A bit too jumbled with facts and stories for my liking.
I'm sure many others will enjoy - just not for me.
Dec 29, 2008 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
recommended by Terry Pratchett.
Mar 31, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating tell (not tail) of a pharmacist's family history with poisons.You've heard of pyromaniac about a serial killing apothecary?
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