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review 2017-10-24 22:53
The Elements of Murder
The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison - John Emsley

He was 32-years-old but had gone grey, which he jokingly said was due to quicksilver. Although there is no connection between the two, there is a link between the body burden of several metals and their level in hair. Mercury, lead, arsenic, and antimony, are particularly attracted to the sulphur atoms in the keratin of hair and so it is possible by the analysis of a strand of hair to show whether that person had been exposed to a large dose of these toxic metals. Newton’s alchemical experiments appear to have reached a climax in the summer of 1693 when he wrote an account that is a combination of bizarre alchemical symbols and comments and is known as the Praxis [Doings] and this showed how unbalanced he had become. Isaac Newton was well known for being temperamental. Criticism of his work aroused in him an abnormal hatred of a rival and his feuds with other eminent scientists of the day such as Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz were more emotional than rational. At times, Newton withdrew into virtual isolation and in 1693, when he was 50-years-old, his behaviour became so abnormal that his sanity was even questioned.

The Elements of Murder was fun, but it was a book with shortcomings. I don't like to start out pointing at the issues with a book but bear with me:


1. The book does not cover that many elements. In fact, only five (all of them metals) get serious page time: Mercury, Lead, Antimony, Arsenic, and Thallium. There is a section at the end of the book that covers some more elements, but most of these entries do not even extend beyond a single paragraph.


2. Arsenic, Thallium, and Antimony are covered in other books (such as the fabulous A is for Arsenic), which made much of the information in this books seem like old news. 


3. Some of the writing is ... dubious. There is something wrong with the flow of the narrative. I can't put my finger on what it was, but I had to read some paragraphs several times to understand what the author was talking about. There were also a couple of paragraphs where the author alluded to something but then suddenly dropped the thought in what seemed mid-sentence and then moved on to something new. 


Yes, this book could have done with better editing.


But...here is why I still enjoyed the book:


The introduction about the history of alchemy and that first chapter on mercury were fabulous!


Emsley explains the properties and history of mercury, its uses, and its impact on the environment. He also goes to describe famous people who experimented with it, and how mercury has been responsible for various deaths. This part was really interesting and packed full of history and hard science. I loved it. 


However, in parts, it seemed like the author wanted to write a book about mercury only, and then felt compelled to add more chapters. 


I would still recommend the book on the chapter about mercury alone, but I do recommend to find it in a library. 


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text 2017-10-17 15:15
Reading progress update: Thallium
The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison - John Emsley

It's not that often that a book about murder makes me smile, but Emsley has bit of a "Battle of the Grand Dames of Mystery" going on here. (I have put the titles in spoiler tags in case the plot description provides spoilers...)


In the red corner, Dame Agatha:

Agatha Christie built one of her murder mysteries around thallium poisoning. In

1952 she wrote The Pale Horse

(spoiler show)

, in which the murderer used it to dispose of people’s unwanted relatives and disguised his activities as black magic curses. The plot involves a murdered priest and a pub owned by three modern-day witches.* Christie described the symptoms of thallium poisoning very well: lethargy, tingling, numbness of the hands and feet, blackouts, slurred speech, insomnia, and general debility, and she is sometimes blamed for bringing this poison to the attention of would-be poisoners. However, her book was responsible for saving the life of one young girl as we shall see.


In the blue corner, we have Ngaio Marsh also using Thallium:



Final Curtain, written in 1947

(spoiler show)

, the novelist Ngaio Marsh had her villain using it. The murder to be investigated was the death of

Sir Henry Ancred

(spoiler show)

who had been poisoned with thallium acetate which had been prescribed in the treatment of his granddaughter’s ringworm. Marsh clearly had no knowledge of how thallium worked in that she imagined that those poisoned with it would drop dead in minutes. Would-be murderers seeking to emulate her villain would have been very puzzled when their intended victims appeared to suffer no ill effects, although this disappointment might only have lasted a few days, and then they would have been fascinated at the many symptoms it produced.


I haven't read Marsh, yet, (something I intend to remedy someday) but one of the fun aspects in Dame Agatha's work is that she seldom gets the use of poisons wrong. Her training as a nurse and familiarity with pharmacy had much use, of course, but she also didn't slack on her research in that field.


This is the only instance in Emsley's book that cites crime writing. The rest of the book recounts real events and people.

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text 2017-10-10 00:52
Reading progress update: I've read 8 out of 421 pages.
The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison - John Emsley

I think this book is going to be fun, despite some clunky phrases:

The fact that Boyle had been an alchemist for most of his life was to prove an embarrassment to the scientific establishment in later years because of the need to present him as the first true chemist. His book The Sceptical Chymist is today regarded as the seminal work that severed the link between chemistry and alchemy but is not just an attack on alchemy. Indeed among Boyle’s papers when he died there was one he had partly written called Dialogue on Transmutation and Melioration of Metals in which he described a well-documented transformation of base metal into gold performed by a French alchemist, and which he said had been witnessed by several eminent people.

The content promises to make up for the odd writing:

Boyle himself published a paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions of 21 February 1676 entitled ‘On the Incalescence of Quicksilver with Gold’. This reports a ‘mercury’ which, when mixed with gold, causes it to react and evolve heat. Lord Brouncker, President of the Royal Society, attested to the efficacy of Boyle’s new ‘mercury’ in that when it was mixed with gold powder on the palm of his hand, he felt the heat it generated.

Really? He mixed this in his hand? That description made me shudder, but then, I guess it hasn't been that long since mercury-silver amalgams have been used in tooth fillings.




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text 2015-12-25 18:39
Just Tell Me There Is No Murder Poetry Now...
The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock - Lucy Worsley

This is one of those books I enjoy a lot (still not done yet) but wonder if others would like it as much. Mainly because Worsley doesn't go into minute details on all of the historic murders themselves - you get the what was done and how - but she's focusing more on the social reactions, not just the crime. Which is fine because she also leads you to other books that will give you more detail if you're interested. (I was kinda gleeful that I'd already read some she cited. I'm such a history fangirl.) And there's always wikipedia for a quick review.


Which brings me to the 1823 Elstree Murder, or Radlett Murder. (Elstree had other murders, so you can see the need to clarify.) And this poem/song:


They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.


Whatever you think of the tabloid/internet press today, at least it's not posting little songs for us all to sing about the latest murders. Which, in the age where not everyone could read, street ballads (broadsides) would do for you. You'd nip into the street (or send your child, servant, etc.), purchase a copy, and then be able to learn it and sing it to an already known tune. Which you could then share at the pub or, I dunno, sing around the family hearth? I've read a bit about street ballads but besides the pubs and streets I'm not sure where you'd end up singing them. Meanwhile, now we have youtube, but thankfully I've never bumped into any area where folk are singing current-day murder songs. (Moment of gratitude here.)


If you want to check out the contents of this book via Worsley's documentary on the subject, I'd definitely encourage you to try it - it's the gist of what the text covers. (And again BBC, I'd pay money to watch this stuff, but it's always years later that it pops up on PBS here in the states.) This search should lead you to it: Lucy Worsley English Murder (The bit about street ballads is in part one.)


Bookwise I'm still on the section where she's discussing the Golden Age of Mystery Writers, specifically the women. And enjoying it hugely. Huzzah for self-gifted books!

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review 2014-12-26 22:34
The Suppressed History of America by Paul Shrag and Xaviant Haze
The Suppressed History of America: the Murder of Meriwether Lewis and the Mysterious Discoveries of the Lewis and Clark Expedition - Paul Schrag

Since I have been out of school, I've learned that the history taught while we're in school is full of half-truths and lies. And really, I'm not surprised to learn there is history that has been suppressed.

That being said, this really is an interesting book and definitely gives a person a lot to think about, and research. One of the things I thought most interesting was about the Mandan and their almost European appearance. Of course, some say this has been discounted. But I'm not so sure. I know a lot of history has been hidden from us for one reason or another. I think this book is a good place to start if you're searching for the truth. Hopefully if anything this book will be a start to get people to really research history and trust me, once you start your own research, you'll see a lot of been hidden from us. And a lot of lies as well.

This was a good book. Well-written and has given me a lot I'd like to start researching.

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