Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Is for Arsenic: Mini-Review

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. ★★ ★★


Anonymous said...

This one has been on my TBR for ages. Will have to look up the library to see if I can get my paws on it :)

J F Norris said...

Does she mention how medical professionals who were reading THE PALE HORSE recognized the symptoms of a certain type of poisoning and managed to save their patients? There are at least two well known cases in which that book helped save lives. I've always remembered that (both cases happened when I was in high school back in the 70s) and like to remind people of the good that can come out of the often maligned genre of murder mysteries.

Bev Hankins said...

John: yes, she does. She mentions the kudos that Christie got for that.

fredamans said...

I read this one a long time ago and loved it. It's one of the few I have read of hers.