A LITTLE ARSENIC WITH YOUR TEA, MUM?
Writing my second Baker Somerset novel, Searching for Peter Griffiths, I realized that one of the characters was going to get killed. The victim’s death was necessary, but the person hadn’t played an on-stage role, so to speak, and a death by stabbing, shooting, or suffocation seemed far too dramatic, calling more attention to the character than necessary and narrowing the possible list of suspects. One possibility, however, was poison. There are so many readily available poisons (in the golden age of mysteries cyanide, strychnine, and arsenic were available everywhere) and there are so many ways of administering them. Availability and variety are just two of the advantages poisons offer the writer; also, the killer doesn’t need to be physically strong thus allowing for more universality among potential suspects, and the death could be mistaken for a suicide allowing the killer more time to evade capture.
Doyle provided Sherlock Holmes with his own medical knowledge. Dr. Watson reports that Holmes was profoundly “knowledgeable in chemistry as well as belladonna, opium and poisons generally” and Holmes tells Watson that he “dabbles in poisons.” Fatal murders by poisoning occur in A Study in Scarlet, The Speckled Band, The Sign of Four, The Sword of Osman, and The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot in which the poison of the Devil’s Foot plant was a fictitious one, made up by Doyle. In other stories frequent poisonings occur which are not fatal, and there are several attempts at suicide using poison. I don’t know if Sherlock ever encountered a case of suicide by phosphorus, but an interesting fact is that in the early 1800s eating match heads was a popular way to commit suicide. Death by phosphorus was an extremely painful way to die, one wonders why someone would choose it as the way to go.
Records show that years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, he was required to take Vegetable Histology and Practical Biology among his medical courses. It seems that he also owned a book, The Essentials of Materia Medica and Therapeutics by Alfred Baring Garrod, M.D. which is now in the collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. The book, signed by Doyle, was heavily underlined and annotated on every page. He wrote brief summaries of symptoms that are similar to rhymes in the margins and flyleafs. Perhaps this was a memory aid, or a way to quickly find the information he wanted.
It is Agatha Christie, however, not Doyle, who is considered the Queen of Poison and she immediately comes to mind when one speaks of mysteries and poison. Murders by poison took place in almost half of her sixty books and are driven by the murderer’s cold plotting and Christie’s focus on the method of death. A mansion, ship, or train filled with people all with reason to commit murder on the victim, is the ideal place to poison someone. Not only is there a wide variety of suspects, but Christie also uses a variety of poisons—eleven, in addition to the very popular and readily available threesome: arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide. Cyanide was her favorite poison, but she used belladonna, hemlock – an oldie from the time of Socrates – as well as ricin (The House of Lurking Death), which had not at that time been used as a real murder weapon.
Doyle had medical training and Christie had worked in a hospital dispensary during World War One and passed her pharmacy exam in 1917. Both these writers were working with a subject they knew; other writers had to research to make their poisoning cases ring true. Dorothy Sayers studied languages and was a poet and writer, but she successfully employed poison in Strong Poison where the killer uses poison to throw suspicion on a female, since common belief held that poisoning was a ‘woman’s crime.’ Anthony Berkeley Cox worked as a journalist after serving in WWI, before using poison to confuse the identity of the intended victim in The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
Ngaio Marsh attended Canterbury College (NZ) and then became an actress. She put the poison in a perfume bottle in False Scent. And Arthur Upfield, one of my favorite authors, served in WWI and then spent twenty years traveling the outback of Australia learning about aboriginal culture. He uses poison in a killer’s attempt to confuse the time of death in Wings Above Diamantina. None of these writer’s backgrounds would give them a knowledge of poisons.
A small sample of other writers who have used poison includes Rex Stout in Poison ala Carte, The Red Box, and the Black Orchids. P.D. James used insecticide in Shroud for a Nightingale, and J.D. Carr serves up poisoned chocolates in The Problem of the Green Capsule. Freeman Wills Crofts lets you watch the murderer carefully plan his murder using cyanide in 12:30 from Croydon. In Dashiell Hammett’s short story Fly Paper, the detective known as The Continental Op deals with murder by arsenic, and Margaret Allingham’s Police at the Funeral uses the classic hemlock.
Why was poison the weapon of choice for many of our Victorian era of golden age writers? Simple. Arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine were plentiful and easily obtained. They were present in common household items: wallpaper, patent medicines, rodent poison, cosmetics, and you could buy them over the counter. Belladonna was, and still is, readily available. It grows in the wild and is difficult to detect in an autopsy unless it is immediately suspected as the cause of death. Its bitter taste can be disguised, and death can occur in a matter of hours if the dosage is strong enough. Arsenic, in its natural form is tasteless and odorless, and visible symptoms are less violent than those of cyanide and strychnine, often appearing first as food poisoning. Thanks to scientific improvements in the detection of these three major poisons, their use in real life began to slow. The Marsh Test, in 1836, was the first reliable means for identifying the presence of arsenic in a corpse, and the Arsenic Act of 1851 in the United Kingdom, required that indigo coloring be added to arsenic and tighter controls were imposed on its sales.
When researching, today’s writers have a multitude of available books and there are opportunities to talk with forensic experts when they decide to poison someone (in their book). One valuable aid to the writer is A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Markup, which lists various poisons Christie used and contains charts showing the method of murder in each of her books. Another is Deadly Doses: a writer’s guide to poisons which lists poisons by household poison, plant, animal, medical, industrial and a raft of others. It gives the toxicity, symptoms, time to take effect, antidotes and treatments, and other interesting facts including case histories of a wide variety of poisons.
Times change, and yet things stay the same. The poisons of today’s writers may be different from those in the golden age of mysteries, but the advantages remain the same. Availability is still a key factor. Today, it is difficult to obtain cyanide, however there are other poisons for the writer to use. For example, there are a multitude of industrial compounds that can cause death. Antifreeze used to be a good choice. Its sweet taste made it simple to mix with food and drinks, making it easy for the killer who could just invite his, or her, victim over for dinner. It works on the central nervous system and could easily be misdiagnosed as heart failure. However, in December of 2012, much to the frustration of mystery writers, manufacturers voluntarily agreed to add the bitter-flavored denatonium benzoate to antifreeze in an attempt to curtail accidental deaths, and it became a less desirable choice for writers. Prescription medicines offer death by overdose, and fatal complications can occur when used with other incompatible drugs. Plant and animal poisons are also still available. Today, as in past years, the variety is almost endless.
As for my personal preference I’ll leave you with a ‘spoiler’—my victim succumbs to the perfect poison—belladonna.