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Monday, February 15, 2016

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

by Shari Randall

Writers, are you shopping for a poison for your next mystery story? Look no further. Dr. Kathryn Harkup’s new book is just what you are looking for.

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie is that rare reference book that is both a valuable resource and a pleasure to read. Dr. Harkup is a self-described “science communicator” who writes and gives seminars on what she calls “the quirkier side of science.” Topics of interest to her: vampirology, the science behind Frankenstein, and Agatha Christie’s poisons.

In A Is for Arsenic, Dr. Harkup takes each poison used by Christie and describes its properties in the context of the novel in which it appears. Christie’s background working in pharmacies during World Wars I and II is well known, but Harkup highlights how that knowledge of poisons and their properties allowed Christie to choose the substance that would work best with her characters, setting, and plot.

Look at the Table of Contents:

A is for Arsenic (Murder is Easy)
B is for Belladonna (The Labours of Hercules)
C is for Cyanide (Sparkling Cyanide)
D is for Digitalis (Appointment with Death)
E is for Eserine (Crooked House)
H is for Hemlock (Five Little Pigs)
M is for Monkshood (4:50 from Paddington)
N is for Nicotine (Three Act Tragedy)
O is for Opium (Sad Cypress)
P is for Phosphorus (Dumb Witness)
R is for Ricin (Partners in Crime)
S is for Strychnine (The Mysterious Affair at Styles)
T is for Thallium (The Pale Horse)
V is for Veronal (Lord Edgeware Dies)

The book delves into these poisons as well as others, both actual and those concocted from Christie’s imagination. Dr. Harkup’s treatment of each substance leads us through the histories, symptoms, antidotes (or lack thereof), and famous real-life cases related to each.

This book should come with two warnings. One, it is addictively readable. Two, though the author delves deeply into each of Christie’s poison plots without ever giving away “whodunit,” readers should be aware that details about how the poisons are administered and how the detectives reach their conclusions may be spoilers.

For more information about Dr. Kathryn Harkup, check her website:


Jim Jackson said...

Sounds like a great read for Agatha Christie fans – especially those who are well-versed in her novels. I think my father would have loved it.

~ Jim

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I used monkshood in a story. It really is the perfect poison. I discovered that the Cincinnati Zoo propagated monkshood and supplied it to a northern Ohio park to replace the native plants, damaged by an invasive species and road salt run-off.

E. B. Davis said...

I love an additional resource, Shari. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. My problem with using poison as the MO is that everyone seems to know it's a woman's choice. But if your villain is a man, then you almost have to reveal the villain was trying to frame a woman. Maybe the villain could be gay?

Shari Randall said...

Hi Jim, All I could do while reading this book was marvel at Agatha's creativity!

Hi Margaret, Monkshood really is a good one. After reading how potent it is, I cannot believe that anyone would plant it anywhere.

Hi E.B., I think of poison as an equal opportunity weapon!

Warren Bull said...

In one story my (male) protagonist used "Loco Weed" to do in the bad guy. The book sounds like a good read.

Julie Tollefson said...

Another resource to add to my library! My husband gets a little nervous sometimes when he sees what I have on my shelves. :)

KM Rockwood said...

Sounds like a fun and informative read.

I haven't had a character who's poisoned anyone, but Jesse does have access to potassium cyanide, used in electro-plating, and at one point was suspected of using it to poison someone. When I worked in a steel fabrication plant, we have 55 gallon drums of potassium cyanide sitting around.

Gloria Alden said...

Shari, it sounds like a good book. However, I have four books on poisons on my shelf, and three of them deal with poisonous plants. Because my series is a gardening series, plant poisonings seems to make sense although only in one book was it used in which a man poisoner three women with poisonous plants. So much for stereotypes, although I guess because I'm a female, that might figure in.

Shari Randall said...

Hi Warren, What is Loco Weed? Enquiring minds want to know!

Hi Julie, when I picked up this book at the book store, the clerk had a very funny look on his face! My husband has gotten used to my, er, unusual reading materials.

Hi KM, good grief! Isn't it a miracle that nobody ever used some of that stuff!

Hi Gloria, you probably know a bunch about plant poisonings! I am going to go through Agatha Christie's plots to see who was poisoning whom….