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Truth, definitely stranger than fiction

Cover of A is for Arsenic: The Pois
A review of A is for Arsenic: The Poisions of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

Exploring true crime seems to be all the rage nowadays, what with the explosion of podcasts, documentaries, and heck even an entire television network (ID) devoted to the topic. But truly, the interest in the worst things that people can do to one another is nothing new.

In 1962, a disturbing murder case came to light when a 15-year-old Graham Young, later determined to be psychopathic, poisoned his step-mother in a death that at first appeared to be natural. That boy went on to kill two others, but it was the first death that aroused the most alarm, as it happened with thallium—the first instance in which the poison was used in a crime. It was not, however, the first time that thallium had been described as a weapon: just a few months earlier, Agatha Christie had published The Pale Horse, in which a number of deaths are eventually traced to thallium, a hitherto little-known poison. As news of Young’s crime spread, people wondered: Could he have gotten the idea from reading Christie’s novel?

As it turned out, Young’s un-ordinary skills with chemistry coupled with psychopathy were to blame for the deaths. Dame Agatha was in the clear. But readers of Christie’s novels are aware the methods and poisons used in her novels are often remarkably accurate. Chemist and educator Kathryn Harkup explores this aspect of Christie’s work in A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. Arranged poison by poison, Harkup covers how each substance works, whether there is an antidote, real crimes in which the poison was used, and how Christie used it in her novels. Some poisons are quite familiar—the effects of cyanide and digitalis are both well known—but Christie also used some more obscure substances like eserine and the above mentioned thallium. Harkup goes into some detail about the chemical structures of each and specifically traces how they work in the body in terms of bonding to this chemical or that. It can be a bit more than what the general reader might use and can be glossed over, but Harkup does explain the mechanics clearly enough for the reader with a basic grasp of chemistry to understand. Of more interest to most is whether Christie’s poisonings would actually be successful in ‘real life’.

Trained as a pharmacy dispenser during World War I, Christie took great pains to accurately depict murder methods in her novels and particularly in the poisoning cases. (Christie was particularly proud when a professional pharmaceutical journal praised The Mysterious Affair at Styles for its spot-on science with strychnine.) One thing: Harkup is obviously obliged to spill who done it, so readers might want to be aware that spoilers show up without warning. I particularly enjoyed reading of the actual crimes in which poisons were used, definitely proving that truth is stranger than even the fiction Christie could imagine. The book closes with a listing of all the methods of murder in Christie’s novels. A is for Arsenic is an obvious choice for Christie fans, but also for readers of Deborah Blum’s popular The Poisoners Handbook and her new or just anyone interested in the finer points of crime.

Aug 19, 2019