That Girl Is Poison: Books about Chemicals and Foul Play

Mystery Month 2017Growing up, I leapt from children’s books directly to adult novels, and found Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Peters to be marvelous company. I must admit that I was, and remain, more of a Poirot girl than Miss Marple devotee, but I’d happily lose myself in Christie’s novels whoever the detective happened to be. It is likely that this is where my fascination with (and delight in) poison first took root, but I’ll get to her in a moment.

For those of you unfamiliar with Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, get you to the library! These books follow a family of Egyptologists from Victorian England on their digs, which are unfailingly interrupted by theft, murder, or kidnapping. Amelia is a feisty heroine, who fearlessly brandishes her steel-shafted parasol, sharp intellect, and progressive feminist views at anyone who stands in her way. I adore her. While poison isn’t as prominent a device in these novels as in Christie’s, it does make appearances, and Amelia regularly doses her family with laudanum so that she can sneak out of the house in pursuit of the criminal of the moment. If you don’t feel like starting with the very first book, I recommend beginning with The Last Camel Died at Noon. How’s that for a title?

A Is for Arsenic coverChristie, on the other hand, famously dispensed with hundreds of characters through the liberal use of cyanide, strychnine, and many other chemical accomplices. If you care to delve into a fantastic A-Z account of the deadly substances used in her work, look no further than A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, by Kathryn Harkup. This compact examination touches on the chemistry, murderous properties, and history of each poison, as well as its use in Christie’s writing and real life. You can get a taste for Harkup’s style in her Telegraph article, “Top 5 Plant Poisons Used by Agatha Christie, and How They Work,” where she notes (unsurprisingly), “I love Christie’s work and find it all the more interesting for her usually very accurate and inventive use of poisons.”

Christie first began publishing mysteries in the 1920s, a time when poison’s reign as an untraceable weapon was being challenged by the emergence of forensic chemistry, a boon to criminal detection. Deborah Blum wrote a fascinating history of this period entitled, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, which blends true crime stories with history and popular poisons of the time. PBS adapted Blum’s book into an American Experience episode, if documentaries are more your style. Similarly—and serving as a nice pairing for the Amelia Peabody books—The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder, by Linda Stratmann, examines the role of poison in the Victorian era, including its criminal, legal, and social developments and impact. It’s worth noting that AgathaChristie.com offers a “murder key” for every title, featuring icons for each weapon employed in the title. Just look for the syringe if you’re in the mood for poison.

Another memorable sleuth at work during the early twentieth century is Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. This precocious 11-year-old adores chemistry, and has a particular passion for poisons. She waxes poetic over the beauty of science while standing over her Bunsen burner, and insinuates herself into various criminal investigations occurring in her small English town. Flavia is as delightful on the page as she is in the audiobook productions, read by the talented Jayne Entwistle. The first of Flavia’s adventures is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie—and you can be sure that sweetness comes from a deadly additive.

 

PICK YOUR POISON

paddington4.50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie (A Miss Marple Mystery)

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, by Kathryn Harkup

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

“And then they saw her face—suffused with blood, with blue lips and staring eyes. . . ‘What poison was injected?’

Armstrong answered: ‘At a guess, one of the cyanides. . . She must have died almost immediately by asphyxiation.’”

Away with the Fairiesby Kerry Greenwood (A Phryne Fisher Mystery)

Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie (A Hercule Poirot Mystery)

The Hippopotamus Poolby Elizabeth Peters (An Amelia Peabody Mystery)

“Since time was of the essence, I did not wait to put the laudanum in Miss Marmaduke’s coffee, as I had originally intended. I selected a rich burgundy to accompany the meal; the sticky black liquid dissolved quite well. . .” —Amelia Peabody

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows CoverI Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley (A Flavia de Luce Mystery)

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum

Raisins and Almonds, by Kerry Greenwood (A Phryne Fisher Mystery)

“A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner (I was thrilled that this was referenced in the S-Town podcast!)

“‘I want some poison,’ she said to the druggist. ‘. . . I want arsenic.’
. . . When she opened the package at home there was written on the box, under the skull and bones: ‘For rats.'”

The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder, by Linda Stratmann

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley (A Flavia de Luce Mystery)

“I wanted nothing more than to bolt for home at once, just to be there, to touch my own gleaming glassware; to concoct the perfect poison just for the thrill of it.” —Flavia de Luce 

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About the Author:

Julia Smith is an associate editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also trained in aerial acrobatics. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

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