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text 2018-05-24 04:50
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Since this is a re-read for me, and I stand by my original review/rating, this post will serve as my final reading update.  As such a few thoughts on the final three entires:

 

Ricin:

"[...] to ensure no ricin makes it into the castor oil it is heated to more than 80C at it is extracted; this denatures the protein, so inactivating it."

 

Something for the raw food movement to remember:  don't buy cold-pressed castor oil.  Sometimes, processed is better.

 

Strychnine:

Oh dear god what a thoroughly hideous way to die.  The deciding factor for me, in a book full of thoroughly hideous ways to go, is that you're completely aware of what's going on the entire time it's happening.  Like Hemlock, only here there's zero chance of getting the "nice" kind (if a nice kind of hemlock actually does exist - let's nobody find out).  

 

I also had the weird and totally superfluous thought:  I wonder if anyone's ever tried spraying a victim down in solarcaine?  (Solarcaine is an aerosol form of lidocaine - topical anesthetic.)  Because, you know, it's a numbing agent, which would cut off nerve stimulation.  Although I can't imagine it would be very comforting to be in the throes of strychnine and hear: "Quick! Get the sunburn spray - this might feel a little cold..."

 

So, now you know where my mind goes when it's running from descriptions of horrific death.  Sunburn spray.

 

Moving on... Veronal.  

I had almost no thoughts about Veronal at all; probably because I was still musing over the sunburn spray ... not because of any deficiencies in Harkup's writing.

 

As I said at the start; I happily stand by my first assessment of the book at the 4.5 stars I gave it.  It's entertaining and accessible without sacrificing intellectual merit.

 

If you have a reading retention rate for details better than mine, you might find some of the sections she doesn't label as spoilers to be over-revealing.  Unlike others, the only one I found that will stick with me over time is the (to me) dead give away in the Veronal chapter for Lord Edgware Dies, although maybe it isn't. The way it's written it seems there's only one scene needed to identify the murderer, given what Harkup shares here.  Perhaps the scene is more complicated than she describes though.  Luckily, I need only read enough books between now and my next Christie to completely forget, confuse or conflate the details I've read here.  Silver linings...

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text 2018-05-23 08:50
Reading progress update: I've read 221 out of 320 pages.
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Phosphorus:  Of all the undignified ways to glow in the dark...  and almost, but not quite, as horrible a way to die as strychnine.

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text 2018-05-20 11:43
Reading progress update: I've read 202 out of 320 pages.
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Opium:  It seems no matter what form you take, all roads lead to morphine.

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text 2018-05-20 08:33
Reading progress update: I've read 156 out of 320 pages.
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Nicotine.  Two Three thoughts come to mind after reading this chapter.  The first:  I have to wonder how many possible medical applications we could have found throughout the ages if we'd studied nicotine before we started smoking tobacco.  I can't help but think medicine has been set back by our own vices.

 

The second though is less virtuous.  It occurred to me while reading this chapter that the American Indians may have gotten their own back just a little bit by introducing Europe to tobacco.  It certainly doesn't come close to balancing the scales, but it does appeal to me that the exchange of devastating, life-altering diseases wasn't entirely one-sided.

 

The third thought pertains to the comment Harkup made towards the end, about cigarettes today containing less tobacco and more nicotine that cigarettes from the 30's.  Apparently today they use reconstituted tobacco and additives, which means that really, people today are pretty much smoking the tobacco equivalent of chicken mcnuggets.

 

 

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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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