Sat
Apr 28 2012 12:15pm

The Poisoner’s Bookshelf

If you’re going to get bumped off outside the pages of a mystery novel, chances are pretty good that you won’t be the victim of poison. It’s more likely that you’ll be shot, stabbed, or clubbed. As of 2008, according to the Department of Justice, the most popular methods of doing away with someone in the United States were guns, knives, and blunt objects, in that order. Poisoning fell into the sixth-ranked All Other category along with other miscellaneous means of mayhem such as explosives and narcotics.

According to another source, in 2009 nearly 15,000 emergency room visits were caused by “drug-related intentional poisonings.” Pharmaceutical and illicit drugs were involved in many of these cases, oftentimes in combination with alcohol, but the report gave no indication of whether any cases involved such good old-fashioned mystery novel standbys as arsenic, strychnine, and so on.

The good news is that if you’re planning to take somebody out with poison (please don’t try this at home, kids) and you’re not quite clear about how to do it there are an unsettling number of reference works that will help you brush up on your knowledge.

Many of these aren’t shy about positioning themselves as handbooks for poisoners,  although in the case of Raymond Tostevin Bond’s Handbook for Poisoners the title is somewhat deceptive. The practical information about poisoning in this 1951 volume is mostly limited to the introduction, with the rest being “A Collection of Famous Poison Stories,” these by such mainstream authors as Kipling and Hawthorne, as well as such mystery writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, R. Austin Freeman, and others.

I don’t have a copy on hand of Maxwell Hutchkinson’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, from the now defunct “alternative” publisher Loompanics, but it appears that this 1988 work is a little more true to its title—be that for better or worse. The last such work we’ll treat is more recent but is also somewhat deceptively titled. That would be The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum, which was published in 2011 and whose subtitle—“Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York”—is sufficient to steer away the reader who’s seeking an instruction manual on the fine art of posioning.

For economy in titling, John Townsend’s 2004 book, which is simply called Poisoning, is surely worthy of a mention. It’s also worth noting that this brief volume, which combines historical and basic information is a juvenile work that’s apparently geared toward the up-and-coming generation of poisoners.

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison by John EmsleyAll the way at the other end of the spectrum is John Trestrail III’s scholarly Criminal Poisoning: Investigational Guide for Law Enforcement, Toxicologists, Forensic Scientists, and Attorneys. It’s a wide-ranging tome that covers everything from the history of poisoning to profiles of posioners and victims and even includes a section on fictional poisonings. For even more of this scholarly type stuff take a look at Criminal Poisoning: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives, a 2011 book from a group of esteemed contributors.

Most of the aforementioned works have discussed the history of poisoning, at least to some degree, but The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison zeroes in on this particular aspect of the grim art and more specifically on cases of poisoning that utilize arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium.

Coming back around to the fictional world of poisoning there are a few books that are geared toward mystery authors who are looking to knock off their characters without making any glaring goofs. From 1990, there’s Deadly Doses: a Writer’s Guide to Poisons and from 2011, HowDunit: The Book of Poisons.

Which is probably all most of us will ever need to know about poison and quite a bit more. So go forth now and poison in good health.


William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist with a fondness for gourmet tea and traditional mysteries. He writes about the former at Tea Guy Speaks and the latter at Traditional Mysteries.

Read all of William I. Lengeman III’s posts for Criminal Element.

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