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It’s astonishing that this book had not been written before. It’s a study of the poisons deployed by Agatha Christie in a selection of her novels, written by a toxicologist and a passionate fan of the Christie oeuvre. The most delightful thing to find out from this book was that Christie knew her stuff, had trained as a pharmacist, and was scrupulously accurate. Thus all the poisons used in her plots worked exactly as they should have done in real life, which adds the indefinable something that makes her plots so addictive. Her novels really only exist to test the reader’s detection levels against the those of the characters, so the crucial details of how murder was achieved have to be absolutely accurate.
Harkup uses an alphabetical approach, which avoids having to proclaim which is the most important or the least effective of the poisons: all are specially deadly in their own ways. She tackles (deep breath) arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus, ricin, strychnine, thallium and veronal, by way of a thorough chemical analysis to get your brain working, then some history of science, some famous real-life cases, which of those Christie might have been influenced by and then How She Did It.
Some of the poisons have additional sections on how Christie’s description of symptoms and methods had (happily and unhappily) influenced those who came after her. It is very pleasing to read that several lives have been saved because someone (once even a nurse) had read the right Christie novel with the very same symptoms presented in a real life case. In at least one other case one of her novels was produced as evidence for the prosecution in a murder trial.
The range of skills and interests demanded of the reader is quite challenging. I did find the chemistry and molecular analysis at first-year university level (which I have done) to be a bit of a stretch, whereas the plot précis are sometimes plodding. The editing could also have been better: there is quite a bit of repetition between chapters, as if some had been written months apart but still said the same things about the poison or plot.
Aside from that, this book gives an emphatic impression of how murderous the human race is, especially those living in the UK. (Britain’s inheritance laws, unlike, say, those in Belgium, are peculiarly conducive to murdering one’s relatives.) It also reveals the extraordinary bravery of generations of toxicologists who tested their hypotheses on themselves. But the longest-lasting effect is to make you rush back to Christie’s novels, even those you thought you knew well, to spot the telling symptoms.
Kathryn Harkup, A Is For Arsenic. The Poisons of Agatha Christie (Bloomsbury 2015), ISBN 978-1-4729-1132-2, £9.99, $17.00, €14.99
Kate is now a publisher as well as a book blogger: handheldpress.co.uk.