written by Jessica Hope
Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime. Agatha Christie
Made famous by the likes of Agatha Christie in her captivating novels, poison has become the popular choice of weapon in mystery books. From Murder Is Easy, to Sparkling Cyanide, Christie had an incredible ability to build complex narratives around poison. As we know, this ability was born during her time as a nurse during WWI, where she eventually became an apothecary’s assistant and worked closely with drugs and dispensaries. In her autobiography, Christie writes about her quieter days, when all she did was “sit around in a room surrounded by poisons…” In the interwar periods of the 1920s, new substances were being discovered and used to hush-up scandalous situations amongst the upper-middle class. Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, speaks to such situations, where detective, Hercule Poirot, uncovers the poison, Strychnine, as the murder weapon.
Agatha Christie’s knowledge of poisons was certainly exceptional. Few other novelists can claim to have been read by pathologists as reference material in real poisoning cases. Kathryn Harkup, A is for Arsenic
When reading a crime novel, it’s important to remain hooked by the various twists and turns along the way. The reader needs to lose themselves in the narrative and become part of the investigation team, to try and solve the murder. Using a weapon like poison, which is a complex subject, almost guarantees that the reader will have to really focus on the story in order to figure out what happened.
So, what poisons are we actually talking about?
Commonly known as, deadly nightshade, belladonna is a plant that contains a dangerous alkaloid called, atropine. A victim of this substance would experience hallucinations and disassociations, like the feeling of being able to fly. Such an intense and visible reaction, makes this particular poison a strong choice for authors to paint a picture. Deadly nightshade attacks the nervous system and can cause a number of reactions in the body, such as mania and other extreme emotions.
For mystery crime novels set in historic periods, women who suffered this deadly poison may have been described as ‘hysterical’ and immediately dismissed. Period novels can also include the complication of not yet having the medical or technical advances to detect certain poisons, resulting in a slower investigation, with more deaths along the way.
Wolfsbane, is a poison that got its name from a Greek custom of dousing the ends of arrows to hunt wild dogs. Its official name, monkshood, is a perennial, wild-growing plant, that causes diarrhoea, vomiting, limb numbness, and arrhythmia. Also known by a third name, aconite, this poison is featured in many magical and mythical stories, including the world-renown series, Harry Potter. Appearing in seven of the films, wolfsbane is used by Hogwarts students and teachers in Potions class and Herbology.
Interesting, our next poison is one you’ll see being used in society every day. Nicotine is a toxin mainly known for smoking-related deaths. However, this fast-acting substance can kill from skin contact alone, resulting in stomach cramps, difficulty breathing, weakness, and seizures. Featured in Christie’s novel, Three Act Tragedy, nicotine can be disguised in food and drink, making it the perfect poison for quiet murders amongst people who regularly dine together in the English countryside. It has three victims and all of them die of ingesting pure nicotine.
During much of the nineteenth century, a third of all criminal cases of poisoning involved arsenic. This particular substance was extremely popular, mostly due to its sheer availability. One could simply pop to a local chemist’s shop and purchase rat killer, meaning that anyone could purchase this dangerous poison. Also, arsenic causes symptoms that look a lot like many other illnesses, such as vomiting, swelling, cramps and abdominal pain. This meant that it could be used as a murder weapon, and go largely undetected. Therefore, a detective had their work cut out for them when solving a mystery involving arsenic.
Poisons have long been associated with female murderers in crime novels, because of women’s historic place and control in the kitchen, giving an ease with which they can be subtly added to the food or drink of the intended victim. Poison doesn’t require a murderer to have great physical strength or have possession of illegal weapons. Poison can be created from everyday items, and ultimately come from nature’s bounty. There is also an amount of anonymity when killing with poison, concealing the identity of the murderer and prolonging the search for truth. These factors are what makes poison the perfect murder weapon to be used in crime fiction. It provides opportunity for mystery and lends itself to many theories as the investigation unfolds.
Today, poison might seem like a slightly archaic weapon of choice. Perhaps it conjures up an image of the three witches in Lady Macbeth, gathered around a deadly concoction. On the contrary, biological weapons are one of the biggest threats to our society, and poisonous substances still remain a mystery to even the brightest minds among us. It is this same mystery of poison that makes it the perfect method for murdering someone in a story, and in real life. As we recently saw in the case of the Salisbury poisonings, deadly weapons can easily make their way into society when they originally come from nature. On 4 March 2018, emergency services received a call to attend to Sergei and Yulia Skripal who had been found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury city centre.
The mystery of poison may be famous for its role in historic period crime novels, but it also remains a mystery for us all today. It is this very real mystery, when reading a crime novel, which still keeps us hanging on the edge of every page.
Ah, but my dear sir, the why must never be obvious. That is the whole point. Hercule Poirot, Five Little Pigs
Next post – #takeawaykeys from the book “The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life” by Edith Eger
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