People are fascinated by murder. The popularity of murder mystery books, TV series, and even board games shows that there is an appetite for death, and the more unusual or macabre the method, the better. With gunshots or stabbings the cause of death is obvious, but poisons are inherently more mysterious. How are some compounds so deadly in such tiny amounts?
Agatha Christie used poison to kill her characters more often than any other crime fiction writer. The poison was a central part of the novel, and her choice of deadly substances was far from random; the chemical and physiological characteristics of each poison provide vital clues to the discovery of the murderer. Christie demonstrated her extensive chemical knowledge (much of it gleaned by working in a pharmacy during both world wars) in many of her novels, but this is rarely appreciated by the reader.
Written by former research chemist Kathryn Harkup, each chapter takes a different novel and investigates the poison used by the murderer. Fact- and fun-packed, A is for Arsenic looks at why certain chemicals kill, how they interact with the body, and the feasibility of obtaining, administering, and detecting these poisons, both when Christie was writing and today.
Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn completed a PhD then a postdoc at the University of York before realising that talking, writing and demonstrating science appealed far more than spending hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. Kathryn went on to run outreach in engineering, computing, physics and maths at the University of Surrey, which involved writing talks on science and engineering topics that would appeal to bored teenagers, and she is now a science communicator delivering talks and workshops on the quirky side of science.
This book is best suited to people with a background in chemistry and/or medicine who are also fans of Agatha Christie. That doesn’t mean others like myself can’t enjoy the book. Personally, I could have done with less chemistry and more Christie.
A is for Arsenic is divided into chapters A-Z (A-V actually, Veronal being the last poison considered.) The chapters individually cover history of the particular drug, symptoms of poisoning for that drug, real life cases, and Agatha’s books that use that poison.
It is explained how Christie became interested in drugs and poisons and you are told just how many times murders with the individual poisons are used in her books. It is well written and some chapter parts can be skimmed quickly if you’re not fully up on your rigorous science.
I love the Art Deco cover and chapter headings. So Poirot!
In a courtroom in France a few years before the murder in question, a prosecuting lawyer who was unsuccessfully trying to prove a case of murder by morphine declared thus: ‘Henceforth, let us tell would-be poisoners … use plant poisons. Fear nothing; your crime will go unpunished. There is no corpus delecti [physical evidence], for it cannot be found.’
A is for Arsenic is one of those books that I will look forward to consulting again while I read my way through the the Agatha Christie novels. It is the perfect companion that explains (mostly without spoilers!) the science behind the poisons used in Christie's mysteries.
While the book is written for readers / fans of Dame Agatha, Harkup makes sure to also include real life stories about the poisons, a description of their history, the science behind them, and information about detection and antidotes (where they exist!).
I loved everything about this book - the content, the way Harkup relates information without overbearing and without expecting readers to have a full working knowledge of chemistry (tho a little understanding of chemistry and biology is required), and the way that each topic is structured into different sections (background, chemistry, link to Christie, antidotes).
This was as entertaining as it was informative - and it even made me look up some more information about chemical compounds, which very few books or people have managed before. This is exactly the sort of book that I wish I had read when studying chemistry at school because it may actually have helped to give context to some of the theory about how things react with each other.
This was very interesting, but the science gets a little bogged down and hard to understand in parts. If you go into the book with knowledge of chemistry, there is probably no problem, but I did not. I still really enjoyed learning about how all these poisons work and real life cases with them involved. It was also neat to see how Agatha Christie utilized them in her books.
Harkup knows her poisons *and* her Christie. (In most cases, she describes the cases without spoilers. In those cases where there are spoilers, this is clearly marked.)
Christie also knew her poisons. She was by training a pharmacist, and poison was her preferred form of literary homicide. (She confessed that she didn't like to use murder by gun, as "I know nothing of ballistics.") In most cases she was absolutely correct in her descriptions of the effects of various poisons - her most notable lapse was probably in her account of ricin poisoning.
Harkup's footnotes are as worth reading as her text, by the way.
A good overview of poisons--what they are, how they work, some famous poisoning cases, and how Agatha Christie used them in her books--mostly with incredible accuracy, but she was a trained pharmacist's assistant. Well written with a fun, breezy style that helps us across some really horrifying stuff about what various substances can do to the body.
A is For Arsenic is most definitely a niche read, but it's a must-have for diehard Christie fans. I count myself in that category, and so does the book's author, Kathryn Harkup: she's described on the back-cover blurb as a "chemist, author and Agatha Christie fanatic." She combines all of these attributes in this book which focuses on fourteen different poisons (arsenic through Veronal -- alpha by poison) used by Christie to kill off several of her victims in her novels and short stories.
After a brief introduction in which we discover (among other things) that Agatha Christie was a trained apothecary's assistant (dispenser) with an incredibly in-depth knowledge of poisons, Harkup wastes no time getting into the meat of this book.
Let's take the opening chapter, which happens to be "A is for Arsenic." Each entry follows pretty much the same pattern, so I'll just offer a brief look at the first. The Christie title she associates with arsenic is Murder is Easy (aka Easy to Kill). Harkup start with a short summary of the book (no spoilers) then moves into "the arsenic story," which gives a bit of info about the history of this poison, "long the preserve of the rich and powerful." This particular part also goes into past crimes where arsenic was the poison of choice, as well as how scientists came up with tests designed to prove forensically that arsenic was used. From there it's "How Arsenic Kills," which gets into arsenic's chemistry, the symptoms one might show when poisoned with it, and the resulting consequences and effects on the body. The next section asks "Is there an antidote?" followed by "Some real-life cases." [As a sidebar, I'll just mention that Harkup mentions one of my favorite cases here, that of Madeleine Smith, the Glasgow poisoner who got away with murder.] Then we move to "Agatha and arsenic," where the author goes back to Murder is Easy, once again spoiler free.
As an added bonus, there's an entire appendix in the back, "Christie's Causes of Death," which is a table listing each story or novel written by Christie: the UK title, the murder method of choice, followed by the American title. If you want to see a sample photo, click here.
The only drawback I can see with this book is that each chapter has a subsection about the science of the particular poison -- scientific jargon that I'll admit goes over my head at times. I'll also admit to skimming through many of these sections precisely because I am a liberal arts person, and science mystifies me at times. However, aside from that aspect, the book is one I'd highly recommend to anyone who is a true Christie devotee, and it's a very welcome addition to my quickly-growing collection of crime-fiction reference books.
‘A is for Arsenic’ is a book written in 2015 comprehensively describing all of the poisons used by the murder mystery author Agatha Christie in her books (around 72 novels). Kathryn Harkup, the author of this encyclopedic work, is a chemist, having completed a doctorate. Christie was a volunteer nurse in the World War I and passed examinations to qualify as an Apothecary’s Assistant in 1917.
There were fourteen drugs used in many of Christie’s murder mysteries, so there are fourteen chapters in this interesting book. Each chapter names the novel(s) where Christie used the poison under discussion, describes the mystery’s plot and how the fictional murders occurred (but not who done it), and adds in real-life murders in which cases were suspected as either source material for Christie or that had happened maybe because of Christie’s novel. Harkup goes into detail about the history of the drug and how the drug kills (mostly by disrupting various atomic or cellular chemical activities throughout the body). Observed physical effects are gone into detail as well, which mostly are horrific. She also describes the chemical structure, including drawings, of the poison’s molecule. The book includes: an Appendix of Christie’s causes of death in every book whether poison or not; an Appendix of some drawings of the chemicals; a selected Bibliography; and an Index. A brief biography of Christie is included, too. There are also many informative notes per chapter.
Did anyone notice I did not mention much about antidotes? Most of these poisons have no antidotes, although the author mentions what was, alas, tried and found to be ineffectual.
Personally I function in the world mostly with a Liberal Arts brain, so the chemistry bits went a wee bit over my head. I diligently studied everything schoolteachers threw at me, so, I wasn’t entirely at sea. I skimmed a few paragraphs, though.
Anyway. The book is basically an interesting 300-page encyclopedia of selected poisons, as well as a companion book for readers of Agatha Christie novels. According to Harkup, Christie gets it right almost 100% of the time.
The only lingering effect this book seems to have had on me is I currently will not eat or drink anything until I watch someone else go first - primarily my oblivious husband. Shhh.
It was a very interesting and informative book about poisons and how Agatha Christie used them in her novels/short stories. This is the perfect book for Agatha Christie fans but you don't need to have read the books to find this book very informative/interesting!
As someone who writes a lot about quantum physics, where systems can be in more than one state at a time, I want to give this book a superposition of star ratings: it's a beautiful book, excellently researched and painstakingly detailed, which gets it a solid four stars, but the nature of the contents makes it more like a mini-encyclopedia, rather than something that reads well from end to end, hence the three stars.
The book has a lot of promise to hit the spot. If, like me, you are interested in both science and crime writing, a study of the poisons used in Agatha Christie's books seems a natural fascinator. Kathryn Harkup takes us through a whole range, from familiar favourites (as it were) like arsenic and strychnine to more unusual possibilities like nicotine, phosphorous and ricin. Each poison has its own section, where we learn how Christie used it, how the poison works, what's an antidote (if anything), real life examples of using the poison and then return to Christie for more details of the way that the poison fits with her plots.
We start with some really interesting biographical material on why Christie was so good on the subject of poisons (she was trained as a pharmacist's dispenser), and once we settle down into the individual poison sections there is some genuinely fascinating material, particularly in the real life poisonings. But the repeated format does become a trifle tiresome after a while. This particularly applies to the bits that describe how the poison attacks the body (which can be somewhat repetitious) and also when Harkup describes the Christie plots - not because these are spoilers (though sometimes they are), but more because descriptions of novel plots are almost always tedious to read.
I am reminded of the two different ways books have approached the elements of the periodic table. Some work through element by element - and reading such titles gets to be a bit of grind. But others, notably Sam Kean's excellent The Disappearing Spoon, are story driven and meander around without the same rigid structure. That approach is so much better to read because even non-fiction books need a narrative to be readable, and an encyclopedia-like repeated format can't deliver that.
So there's nothing wrong with this book. It is beautifully made - one of the most elegant popular science books I've ever seen with a gorgeous textured cover and elegant chapter heading graphics. And Harkup combines some interesting stories of real life poisoning with a generally light and highly readable tone. But the format naggingly gets in the way of this being a true popular science masterpiece.
All Agatha Christie fans, and many with an interest in poisons and true crime will enjoy the book and will want it in their collection, but it could have been even better.
Es un libro tremendo, y creo que es un must si tenés algún tipo de interés por Ágatha Christie y su literatura, o solo si te interesa la toxicológica en general. Es un homenaje precioso a la reina del misterio. El lenguaje que se utiliza es muy ameno y no es complicado, sobretodo para personas que no tienen idea de medicina como yo, y la información es bastante completa; si bien es mejor hacer una investigación a parte, sirve como un primer pantallazo muy ilustrativo. Por suerte no se habla únicamente desde una perspectiva médica, sino que también se cuenta el contexto histórico de su descubrimiento y uso, algunos casos reales y, por supuesto, como Ágatha lo aplicó en sus novelas. Por suerte no se hacen spoilers de quién es el asesino, sino que te incentiva a leer todas las historias que se mencionan. Recomendarlo es quedarme corta.
A IS FOR ARSENIC is probably exactly the sort of book you will be expecting after reading the book blurbs... and more.
A IS FOR ARSENIC is going to appeal to a wide audience. Fans of the mystery writer, Agatha Christie, are going to find the analysis of Christie's pharmaceutical background interesting (I had no idea), as well as how accurately she portrayed the toxins at work in her books. (She made some missteps but was extremely knowledgeable.)
Budding-Mystery authors are going to find this a valuable research tool. And regular folk, if we can call those of us who are curious about such things 'regular', are going to enjoy the real crime descriptions that are included in A IS FOR ARSENIC, in addition to the Christie information. As well, I think we're going to be mesmerized by Harkup's histories of the toxins -- who discovered them, developed variations, and more importantly developed tests for detecting the poisons-- and descriptions of their effects and how they can be, or must be, administered so that they can do their dirty work.
There are some deep technical paragraphs in each chapter that talk about real chemistry --valences and such-- for those of you with a chemistry background, but don't let that put others of you off. It is very very easy to skim over this super detailed information and keep turning pages. You won't feel cheated at all if you aren't interested in this part of the book.
I found A IS FOR ARSENIC well organized and very interesting.
This is a well written and very informative book about poisons and how Agatha Christie used them in her novels and short stories. You don't need to have read the books to find this book interesting as it will be of interest to anyone who reads crime novels. Christie did have professional knowledge of poisons before she started writing full time so it is perhaps not surprising that the details in her books are accurate.
Each poison has a section to itself and the author relates the history of the substance and its uses, if any, in medicine as well as a poison. How easy or difficult it would have been to obtain the poison at the time Christie's books or stories were written is also detailed together with the ways the law has changed since then. Real life poisoning cases are also detailed. How the poison works and its chemical make up are also covered and I have to confess to skipping some of the more technical passages as I found my O level chemistry was not really up to the task.
But the chemical details make up a very small part of the text and not always being able to understand these small sections did not spoil my enjoyment of the whole book which is a mine of information. There are two appendices to the book - one a detailed list of all Christie's books with causes of death of the victims and the other one showing chemical diagrams for all the poisons discussed. There is a bibliography and an index as well.
This is a fascinating book for anyone who loves Agatha Christie's writing and for anyone who reads crime novels or true crime.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie  – ★★★★★
15 September 2020 marks 130 years since the birth of Agatha Christie in 1890, and this review is meant to pay tribute to the ultimate Queen of Crime. The author of A is for Arsenic is Kathryn Harkup, a chemist by profession, who decided to plunge into all the poisons that Christie used in her books to come up with her perfect crimes. In A is for Arsenic, we first read about the scientific properties of each of the poisons used by Christie in her fiction, from arsenic and belladonna to opium and phosphorus (including their histories and the ways they kill), before the author illuminates the real cases involving these poisons, and finally talks about the fictitious cases in Agatha Christie’s books. It is clear that reading about different poisons has never been as morbidly fun or interesting as with this book since Harkup is an intelligent and succinct writer with a great sense of humour. A is for Arsenic is sure to fascinate and delight this Halloween season.
Agatha Christie was always a very considerate writer who liked to research her books thoroughly before penning them. Once trained as a nurse, Christie knew something about poisons and their applications, and the knowledge she lacked she liked to gather. Harkup says that Christie’s “murders” and their solutions were almost always scientifically-plausible and that element alone made her books stand above one’s average detective thriller. Christie also liked to experiment, and some of her crimes in books are committed by rather unusual means where often the poison is either left untraceable or can be taken for an accidental overdose of a common prescribed medication.
Kathryn Harkup structures her book in the following order: (i) a brief synopsis of a book by Agatha Christie where a poison was used; (ii) a history of a particular poison; (iii) the scientific characteristic of a poison, including the nature of its compound and how exactly it kills its victim; (iv) some real-life examples or famous real cases where that poison was administered to kill; and, finally (v) Agatha Christie’s fiction and how a particular poison was used by a murderer in the story. Each poison is listed in an alphabetic order, and we read about such dangerous compounds and plants as arsenic, belladonna, cyanide and hemlock. Their histories are often as illustrious as their reputation. For example, eserine is derived from beans grown in West Africa and were often used by local people to conduct trials by ordeal (to prove either guilt or innocence of an individual who swallows the beans). Similarly, we read how the poisonous hemlock may be mistaken for cow parsley, and how Socrates might have died by swallowing a concoction made of hemlock.
Since the author is a PhD in chemistry, we read detailed and well-explained passages on the nature of chemicals in poisonous compounds and how they interact with other substances. What exactly produces a poisonous reaction; is there an antidote?; and what is the history behind scientific discoveries of each compound so far? In this vein, we read how the compound ricin is produced by the castor oil plant ricinus communis, which grows in the world’s tropical regions, and find out how the use of white phosphorus in match-making factories in the 1880s was responsible for one horrific disease – the phosphorus necrosis of the jaw or “phossy jaw”. There has always been a fine line between the medicine that gets us better and the compound that kills – a harmless stimulant may turn into a poisonous killer in an instant and with just a few more milligrams of the same compound. Thus, it is the doctors who have often straddled that fine line, and that may explain their high number as characters in Christie’s literary creations.
Both the scope and depth of Harkup’s book is impressive, but, more impressive still is the research, especially her research into some very little-known real cases of poisoning by some very rare substances. The amazing thing is that the real cases presented in the book seem even more bewildering and unbelievable than any fiction that Christie penned. To that effect, we read about the exploits of the infamous George Henry Lamson, a doctor who poisoned his victim using aconitine (devil’s helmet or monkshood) in a cake, and even about one rare case of poisoning by nicotine! from the year 1850. When Harkup finally returns to Christie’s stories, she speculates on how the murderer there could have obtained the poison and whether it all is sufficiently realistic given all the science. The great thing here is that the author never gives out any spoilers – she says just enough to whet our appetites so that we will rush to pick up this or that detective story.
The conclusion is that A is for Arsenic is a “must-read” for any fan of Agatha Christie, as well as for all those who either like to marvel at all things macabre in science or crime, or who are simply interested in various poisons and their effect on the human body.
O lectură interesantă, ce mi-a captat atenția și m-a impresionat prin nivelul de atenție la detalii și informații menite să prezinte și altceva despre cărțile Agathei Christie, decât crimele in sine.
Nu aveam idee ce compuși stau la baza acestor otrăvuri, mai ales că modul lor de preparare imi este ca o limbă străină. Dar faptul că mi-a fost explicat pe ințelesul meu și am căpătat câteva exemple, am reușit să ințeleg mai bine cum survin anumite morți “subite”.
I found this book utterly fascinating. The author identifies several different poisons used in Agatha Christie's books and spends a chapter on each, explaining the history of the poison, the science behind it and notable murders that have been committed with it! In some ways I don't think this even needed the connection with Agatha Christie - each chapter is very interesting in its own right and the author struggles writing about each book or short story without spoiling who the murderer is! - but it is also interesting to hear about each poison in the context of the early-to-mid twentieth century, when you could buy arsenic and strychnine over the counter. Some of the poisons I hadn't heard of - eg. eserine and thallium (the chapter on thallium includes details of a real-life poisoner which are UTTERLY DISTURBING) and others are very familiar, like arsenic and hemlock, but I learned a lot from it all.
This is another popular science book that hit the sweet spot for me. I liked the organization by poison, with the internal structure per poison of historical and scientific breakdown including discovery, isolation, detection, and mechanism by which the poison kills, followed by real life cases and then how Christie employed the poison in her fiction. The writing is clear, concise, and easy to read, and I appreciate the level of detail Harkup chooses when discussing the chemistry. I did not know that Christie had such extensive knowledge about drugs, and it makes me want to go back and read more of her novels. I respect authors who strive for scientific accuracy in their stories.
An edifying read for Agatha Christie fans and for anyone who is interested in forensics. Also this book makes for a good companion read to The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum, both dealing with true crime stories that advanced the science of poison study as well as explaining the difficulty in finding chemical evidence of poisonings. Both books make chemistry and science accessible and fascinating while highlighting the history of dangerous chemicals and compounds in our gardens or homes.
Wow. What an interesting look into the poisons the Queen of mystery, Agatha Christie, used in her books. Poisons have always been interesting to me but this book really went down a rabbit hole with the different kinds. Incredibly fascinating! One of the most intriguing nonfiction books I’ve ever read. A MUST for any Christie lover.
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup is a very good read for anyonewith an interest in poisons-- whether scientifically or because you're plotting your very own Golden Age style mystery--and/or Agatha Christie. Harkup gives the reader an A through V (Arsenic through Veronal) look at the poisons the Queen of Crime used in her stories. Each chapter features a new poison with a historical look at its development/discovery, actual murders committed using the poison, and the most pertinent Christie novel to incorporate the concoction in a crime. A handy list in the appendix gives a more detailed look at all the stories and the murder methods employed. For most of the chapters she manages to explain the poisonous substances and their use by Christie without spoilers and in cases where spoilers are unavoidable she gives fair warning so no one need fear having an unread Christie (is there such a thing?) ruined.
She also gives a great deal of detail on Christie's extensive knowledge of poisons and medications which the author gained through her work as a nurse and apothecary's assistant during the First World War and as a dispenser at the University College Hospital during World War II. While, Christie did make some errors in her stories, she was correct most of the time with a high percentage of her scientific errors being due to a lack of information about the drugs at the time she wrote. And many doctors and critics of the time praised her for getting her details right.
The most tedious portions of this book were the sections within each chapter that gave all the scientific details of each poison--chemical makeup, how to distill it (if distilling is necessary), how many different compounds were related, all the gory details of how the poison acts on the human body (details about the copious vomiting, extreme muscle spasms, etc. that Dame Agatha spares her readers), etc. I was far more interested in the relationship between Christie's knowledge and her usage in the books and the connections between her fictional murders and any real-life murders that occurred either before her books were written (and which may have influenced her stories) or the murders that occurred after publication (and which some critics tried to say might not have happened if Christie hadn't highlighted such-and-such poison).
Overall, a thoroughly researched book that, for the most part, presents the subject matter in an engaging format. The scientific explanations, while a bit tedious to me, were not so technical that they went over my head and are written in language that the average reader should understand. It is particularly engaging for the Christie enthusiast who is looking for insight on her crimes.
First posted on my blog My Reader's Block. Please request permission before reposting. Thanks.
Nachdem ich "Mordsgifte: ein Toxikologe berichtet" gelesen habe, wollte ich ein Buch das nicht nur reale Kriminalfälle von Giftmorden behandelt, sondern auch deren genaue Wirkungsweise erklärt. Mit "A is for Arsenic" hab ich damit voll ins Schwarze getroffen.
Kathryn Harkup gibt in diesem Buch ein Verzeichnis über einige wenige, aber interessante Gifte, die alle als Mordmittel in Krimis von Agatha Christie verwendet wurden. Man darf allerdings keine reine Nacherzählung der Krimis oder eine ausführliche Biographie Agatha Christie's erwarten. Es wird zu Anfang kurz darauf eingegangen woher Christie ihr relativ umfangreiches Wissen über Gifte hatte, aber viel mehr erfahren nicht über Christie's Leben. Wie der Untertitel "The Poisons of Agatha Christie" in diesem Fall richtig andeutet, geht es hauptsächlich um die Gifte. Harkup teilt die Kapitel in die unterschiedlichen Gifte ein, die sind wiederum untergliedert in Wirkungsweise der Substanz, reale Fälle von Giftmorden, Gegengifte und Christie's Krimis in denen das Gift vorkommt. Hierbei bleibt Harkup meist oberflächlich um nicht zu spoilern und wenn doch mal gespoilert wird, verweist sie explizit darauf hin zum nächsten Kapitel zu springen. Demnach können also auch Leute die nicht mit vielen Christie-Krimis vertraut sind, das Buch ohne Angst zu haben genießen. Die Wirkungsweise der Gifte im Körper (meist im Nervensystem) wird sehr detailliert beschrieben, teilweise geht es bis auf molekulare Ebene hinab, aber nur sehr kurz und nie so speziell dass man Chemiker oder Biologe sein muss um es zu verstehen. Da ich aber selbst sehr gut mit Neurobiologie vertraut bin kann ich nicht dafür garantieren, aber ich schätze solange man ein Interesse für dieses Gebiet mitbringt entstehen keine großen Fragezeichen im Kopf. Man sollte sich nur bewusst machen dass dieses Buch sich mehr mit den Giften selbst, als mit den Krimis von Agatha Christie beschäftigt, damit man nicht mit falschen Vorstellungen an das Buch herangeht.
Ich liebe Chemie und kann an dem Buch nichts bemängeln. Es war genau das wonach ich gesucht habe.
I avoided picking this up for quite a while, mostly because I’m just not that interested in Agatha Christie’s work — she wrote some great mysteries, but I’m more interested in characters, and I’m not overly fond of any of hers. (Poirot and his mannerisms drive me mad, sorry.) It turns out that while this does talk a lot about Christie’s work, it also relates her ideas to actual chemistry — of which she’d have been aware of as an assistant in a dispensing chemist — and actual murders that she may have found inspiration from.
All in all, it becomes a rather entertaining little package, not just focused on recounting the plots of Agatha Christie’s books. The chemistry involved was pretty easy for me to follow, but bear in mind that I am in my last year of a science degree! It might get a little too involved for people who are interested in this from the Agatha Christie end of the equation (while not, I think, being worth reading just for the explanations of how poisons work, because there’s a lot of social info and stuff about Christie and her plots as well). Fortunately, if you are a fan of Christie, Harkup doesn’t spoil any of her plots — or in the rare cases she has to for the sake of explaining things properly, she warns you in advance.
I still would’ve liked to see it be about the Golden Age crime fiction in general, and then Harkup would’ve had a great one to analyse in the shape of Sayers’ Strong Poison… but that’s beside the point.
Agatha Christie killed a lot of people in her books and her murderers often used poison to achieve their means. Christie knew what she was writing about, after all she had been a nurse during World War I., and her works have been praised for their scientific accuracy when it comes to the effects of poisons.
A is For Arsenic walks us through some of the Queen of Crimes’ most effective toxins. The chapters start with a scientific overview of the various poisons’ origins and their history before telling us how Christie utilized them in some specific works. We learn about strychnine, veronal, arsenic or cyanide.
I found the chapter T is for Thallium particularly fascinating. It deals not only with the novel The Pale Horse but also tells the real life case of British serial-killer Graham Young who used this toxic element to kill several people. I just recently came across Young in one of Peter Lovesey’s mystery novels, and it was interesting to learn more about him.
There are some omissions. Most notably my favourite (if you can call it that) poison taxine used in a Pocket Full of Rye.
A is For Arsenic might not be for everyone. It helps if you have a scientific mind and a certain interest in chemistry, since the book can be a tad dry, but is nonetheless a worthy addition to any mystery fan’s library.
Well-written, engaging, and interesting. More than just a catalog of poisons, the author integrates history, chemistry, and true crime, so you get a real sense of context. Each chapter has a section on the substance's physical/chemical effects (i.e., exactly how it kills you!), what medical uses it had and what superseded it, how easy it would have been to obtain back then (and now), real-life instances of use, how and where Christie uses it, how accurate her depiction is, etc. And she does it all without spoilers!
This book is well researched and well written, link between Agantha Christie's novels and real life poisoning cases added more fascination to it. Chemistry of poisons always fascinates me and this book hooked me till the very end.
As a total Christie nerd (used to read one a week in school), I really enjoyed this study of 14 poisons that she used throughout her novels. The writer is a chemist herself and in each chapter she details the history, etymology, usage, real-life cases of murder and how accurate Christie was in her novel; for each poison. If there was such a thing as non-fictional fan fiction this is a pretty fun book to read. But of course the fun is if you have read all the novels mentioned in the book which is why I rated it four stars for not being that accessible.
This book was really interesting and I learned a lot of new information about chemical reactions within the body. I've read a couple Agatha Christie novels, and I've watched the Ms. Marple show on Netflix. This book made me want to read more of Agatha Christie's books.
Μια εξαιρετική μελέτη των μέσων που χρησιμοποιεί η θεία Άγκαθα στα έργα της. Παρουσιάζει κάθε δηλητήριο, το συσχετίζει με τα έργα, μαθαίνεις πράματα που δεν φανταζόσουνα - πάρα πολύ μου άρεσε, αλλά ασφαλώς είναι για "ειδικό" κοινό :-) Εγώ πέρασα καλά διαβάζοντάς το.
If you have any interest in poisons and/or Agatha Christie, do check out this new book. It's absolutely fascinating. It goes into deep detail about the history of the poisons, how they work, if there are antidotes, and how Christie used the poison and her accuracy (which tends to be quite high). A is for Arsenic is a fast read. The chapters are short, and the way that it mixes Christie's fiction with fact works very well.
I would categorize the book along with The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum for how it tackles history and science together; needless to say, I love Poisoner's Handbook as well. It's a book I have referred to multiple times in my writing. Harkup's book will likewise gain reference use. It actually already made me pause, as I think I need to make corrections to a manuscript I'll be editing soon.
This is definitely one of my favorite nonfiction reads for the year. If you write fiction that involves poison, get it. If you love mysteries, get it. If you want to catch odd glances in public, get it (bonus points for how it has a cool vintage-style cover, too)