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review 2018-05-18 13:12
Should come with several prescriptions / warning labels:
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

The first caveat, obviously, being "don't ever try this at home."  Most of the poisons Harkup discusses are much harder to obtain these days than in Agatha Christie's time, so for most of them the risk of being used as a murder weapon may have been mitigated in the interim, but that's not true for all of them -- belladonna, phosphorus, opiates, ricin, and thallium are still scarily easy to obtain (or distill) if you know how and where, and the story of Graham Young (aka the stepson from hell) is a chilly reminder that (1) it may not actually be a particularly wise idea to present your 11 year old son with a chemistry set for Christmas for being such a diligent student of the subject -- particularly if he has taken a dislike to your new spouse -- and (2) there are still poisons out there, thallium among them, that are but imperfectly understood and may, therefore, be misdiagnosed even today.

 

My second caveat would be to either read this book only after you've finished all of Agatha Christie's novels and short stories that are discussed here, or at least, let a significantly large enough amount of time go by between reading Harkup's book and Christie's fiction. (Obviously, if you're just reading this one for the chemistry and have no intention of picking up Christie's works at all, the story is a different one.)

 

There are exactly two instances where Harkup gives a spoiler warning for her discussion of the books by Agatha Christie that she is using as "anchors" for the poisons under discussion (morphine / Sad Cypress and ricin / Partners in Crime: The House of Lurking Death), and in both instances, my feeling is that she is using the spoiler warning chiefly because she is expressly giving away the identity of the murderer. 

 

In truth, however, several other chapters should come with a massive spoiler warning as well; not because Harkup is explicit about the murderer (she isn't), but because she gives away both the final twist and virtually every last detail of the path to its discovery.  As Harkup herself acknowledges, a considerable part of Agatha Christie's craft consists in creating elaborate sleights of hand; in misdirecting the reader's attention and in creating intricate red herrings that look damnably convincingly like the real thing.  But in several chapters of A Is for Arsenic, Harkup painstakingly unravels these sleights of hand literally down to the very last detail, making the red herrings visible for what they are, and even explaining just how Christie uses these as part of her elaborate window dressing.  The effect is the same as seeing a conjurer's trick at extreme slow motion (or having it demonstrated to you step by step) -- it completely takes away the magic.  Reading Harkup's book before those by Christie that she discusses in the chapters concerned makes you go into a later read of those mysteries not only knowing exactly what to look for and why, but also what to discard as window dressing -- the combined effect of which in more than one instance also puts you on a direct trail to uncovering the murderer.  This applies to the chapters about hemlock (Five Little Pigs, aka Murder in Retrospect -- see my corresponding status update), strychnine (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), thallium (The Pale Horse), and Veronal (Lord Edgware Dies); as well as, arguably, though perhaps to a lesser degree, to the chapter about belladonna (The Labours of Hercules: The Cretan Bull).  In fact, in at least one of these chapters

(Veronal)

(spoiler show)

she as good as discloses both the murderer and the final twist before she's ever gotten to a discussion of the drug used in the first place.

 

As a result, Harkup's book loses a half star in my rating on this basis alone, and I'm left with one of the odd entries in my library where I'm checking off the "favorite" box for a book that I'm not rating at least four stars or higher.  Because the fact is also that I immensely enjoyed Harkup's explanations just how the poisons used in Christie's novels work (and where they occur naturally / what they derive from), which has both increased my already enormous respect for Christie's chemical knowledge and the painstaking way in which she applied that knowledge in her books, and also served as fascinating background reading and a chemistry lesson that is both fun and instructive.  I just know that this is one of the books I will come back to again and again in the future, not only when revisiting Christie's catalogue but also when reading other books (mysteries and otherwise) involving poison -- from the beginning of this read, I've had repeated flashbacks to books by other writers (and I'm gratified that Harkup hat-tips at least one of them, Ngaio Marsh's Final Curtain, in her discussion of thallium, even if I'd also have liked at least a little word on the effect of the embalming procedure described Marsh); and I'm fairly certain that particularly my future mystery reads involving poisons will prompt some considerable fact-checking at the hands of A Is for Arsenic.

 

Which in turn brings us back to caveat No. 1, I suppose ... don't ever try this at home!

 

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text 2018-05-17 12:16
Reading progress update: I've read 236 out of 320 pages.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Phosphorus and Ricin -- two particularly nasty ones.  And the way she's describing the discovery of phosphorus, it sounds like something straight out of a sorcerer's lab ... byproduct of the search for the philosophers' stone.  Why stop at gold, anyway?!

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text 2018-05-14 12:58
Reading progress update: I've read 202 out of 320 pages.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

What does it say that I read the opium chapter this night, after having woken up at 4:00AM (against all habit)?

 

I can see the temptation in using Sad Cypress as the anchor book for this chapter, and I'm glad Harkup gave an unambiguous spoiler warning this time around before proceeding to give away the final twist, in order to be able to address a compound that Christie uses in this novel (and which she only mentions by name in Poirot's final round-up of the suspects).  Still, it's not like this is the only book by Christie where morphine plays a prominent role, and Harkup would have been able to do without a spoiler completely by choosing, say, By the Pricking of My Thumbs (which was likely inspired by one of the real life cases Harkup addresses anyway), discuss morphine, heroin / diamorphine and codeine exactly the way she does here, and then, without specifically identifying Sad Cypress, tag on a paragraph beginning with "In another book, the poisoner ..." -- and then proceed to describing the solution of Sad Cypress.  Ah, well.  But, as I said, at least this time around there's a clear spoiler warning ... which should absolutely be heeded by anybody who hasn't read Sad Cypress yet.

 

Notes on the previous chapters:

 

I'm now wondering whether the murderer in Ellis Peters's Monk's Hood would really have made it all the way to being found out by Brother Cadfael, a considerable time after the murder, without suffering the slightest effects of the drug himself.

 

And while I thought I couldn't possibly be more scared of both nicotine and opiates than I already am anyway, just reading about the chemistry involved all over again was a not-very-much-needed refresher of just how scary these really are.  And, um, why kicking the habit (smoking) once and for all some 20 years ago was definitely the right thing to do.

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text 2018-05-10 13:09
Reading progress update: I've read 140 out of 320 pages.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Oh, FIE.  Major spoiler alert.

 

In the "Hemlock" chapter, Harkup gives away -- without any prior warning whatsoever -- the identity of not one but two of the key suspects in Five Little Pigs who ultimately turn out to be innocent, and she also reveals the answer to the question that Poirot is chiefly asked to resolve.  This concerns persons whom Christie builds up as particularly "promising" suspects with great skill throughout the novel, with many clues pointing in their direction, and the revelation that they are innocent (and how the clues pointing to them are actually red herrings, and what they really mean) is a key part of Poirot's eventual summing up.  Even worse, knowing that -- and why -- these two persons didn't do it, and what the clues pointing to them actually mean, opens up direct lines of reasoning pointing to the true killer (whom Harkup doesn't reveal, but who is fairly easy to identify once you start questioning / rethinking those clues -- or at the very least, Harkup's hints also help eliminate other suspects).

 

If you haven't read Five Little Pigs yet, I strongly suggest you don't read the Hemlock chapter of Harkup's book until after you've read the novel.  For all I can see so far, there are no cross-references to this chapter with other parts of A Is For Arsenic, so it's not like you're missing anything that you need to know to be able to follow the rest.

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text 2018-05-07 12:10
Reading progress update: I've read 108 out of 320 pages.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

I just finished the digitalis chapter -- a fairly fast read, since for once this was one dealing with stuff of which I had at least a working knowledge going in. Christie herself discusses some of the basics re: digitalis in Appointment with Death and some of her short stories (most notably, The Herb of Death), and more importantly, one of the key characters in Dorothy L. Sayers's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a doctor -- the very same doctor who prescribed digitalis to his fellow club member, the victim, for his heart condition, in fact -- and he discusses the workings of digitalis with Lord Peter Wimsey in some detail after they've both "viewed" the body. Sayers was as obsessed as Christie about getting the chemistry of her novels involving poison right (she even co-wrote The Documents in the Case with a chemist, Robert Eustace, and they performed lab tests together to make sure the murder could really have been carried out the way they were, um, plotting it). It's obvious that she'd read up on digitalis as well.

 

Hmm, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was published in 1928, and the RL case that Harkup thinks may have inspired Christie -- the Marie Becker murders -- happened in 1932. Mme. Becker, for her part, wouldn't happen to have been inspired by Sayers, would she?! At any rate, I'm fairly certain that Sayers was aware of the other case that Harkup mentions (Pommerais / Pauw); though the facts are not identical, there are certain elements of that case that also show up in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

 

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