A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

A comprehensible survey of poisons and a celebration of the Queen of Crime.

a is for arsenic

Chemist Kathryn Harkup combines her scientific expertise and love of a good mystery in her first book, A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. B is for belladonna, and C is for cyanide, as Harkup works her way through 14 mysteries and 14 discrete poisons, with meticulous and informed explanations of the science behind each toxin’s effects (an appendix contains chemical structures). Each chapter also details famous real-life cases involving these deadly substances, including those that might have inspired–or been inspired by–Christie’s work, and analyses of how accurately the Queen of Crime represented the science within her stories. Generally the renowned writer does very well: as Harkup explains, Christie worked as a volunteer nurse in World War I and showed such aptitude that she was encouraged to continue her education and training as a pharmacist. By the Second World War, her work as a dispenser left her ample time to pursue her other profession, writing bestselling stories and novels.

Harkup’s writing style is accessible to the lay reader, although she does become technical when discussing poisons’ actions on the body, with full detail at the cellular level. She keeps these explanations short, however, and general readers will be able to follow along. For Christie fans, the review of famous mysteries is great fun, and the few spoilers come with ample warning. A Is for Arsenic is both informative science and a spur to read or reread the most popular mysteries ever written.

This review originally ran in the September 25, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 grains.

6 Responses

  1. I try not to do a lot of research, but the one time I wrote a mystery where poison was used I did look it up (on Wikipedia, I admit), just to be sure of the symptoms.

    It does make a difference when you can tell that a writer knows the facts.

  2. I love the vocabulary! Whirlwinds and other complications… that is an interesting set of observations. Since I love creative nonfiction for its use of “fiction elements” to portray nonfiction, I guess I see this problem differently. I’d be inclined to say that the writer was less skilled, who failed to seamlessly blend fact and fiction in these cases. (Acknowledged: I have not read these writers.) I love the seamless blend, and have seen it done well. But the reading/listening experiences you describe sound unpleasant, certainly.

    • Ah, I have not explained myself, I see. With the Philo Vance novel it was a dip in the quality of the book, like watching a movie where the director allows his friends to have cameos that just distract from the plot and take you out of the movie. But the book itself is a seminal, influential locked-room mystery — one of the earliest — and the central gimmick has been stolen by writers as diverse as John Dickson Carr, and, well, me. 🙂

      The Sapphire and Steel audio was a complete pleasure, however. After all, what’s better for a science fiction series that’s all about time to base an episode on a real-world historical mystery involving watches?

      Maybe the difference is that in the novel the real-world elements were added in halfway through, and in the audio drama they were the actual basis of the plot (I never thought of that distinction until this minute).

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