Renee Webster Reviews A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup
Kathryn Harkup’s “A is for Arsenic” is a well-researched and engaging investigation of the poisons favoured by characters in Agatha Christie novels. The book begins with a biographical section detailing of Christie’s professional experience working in a pharmacy. Her first career as a dispenser and apothecary’s assistant is enormously influential on her later career as a fiction author and creator of the famous detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. The remaining 14 chapters each focus on a single poison used as agents of murder in Christie’s works.
Comparisons are made between Christie’s fictional murders, and real life murders which were especially intriguing and added relevance. Within each chapter, accounts of real poisoning cases are presented along with Christie’s fictional murders and Harkup also discusses the likelihood of the fictional murders occurring in real life as described in Christie’s books. However, unless you are a particular Marple or Poirot fan, it was sometimes easy to lose track of whether or not you were reading about a fictional character, or a real person who had actually met their untimely death through poisoning.
Harkup has a PhD in chemistry and as an analytical chemist myself, I was impressed with her description of chromatography in Chapter 2. For such a widespread scientific technique, it is not very well known, often poorly explained and is one example of where the author’s skill in science communication shines through. Harkup also explains how a thorough knowledge of chemistry enables an astute reader to pick up errors in some of Christie’s works.
Amateurs and science enthusiasts through to experienced chemists will surely find many interesting toxicological tidbits in “A is for Arsenic” to keep them entertained. I found particularly fascinating the intricacies of nicotine poisoning, developments in analytical techniques for detecting poisons, and the curious side effect of acute phosphorus poisoning – ‘smoking stool syndrome’.
I had a few small quibbles with the chemistry in the book, such as the structure of hyoscyamine in the chapter B is for Belladonna, which while correct is drawn a little awkwardly with the methyl group impinging on the 7-membered ring. The abbreviation for litre was a lower case “l”, which is an accepted shorthand but the uppercase “L” is more widely used, particularly in scientific contexts. I also felt the adjective “perfected” used with respect to fatal gassing and executions was in bad taste.
These minor equivocations aside, I found A is for Arsenic enjoyable, informative and provides a unique perspective on some famous and also lesser known poisons. The book is also styled very attractively, with cover art and chapter headings in an aesthetically pleasing art deco style.
Renee graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Chemistry from the University of Western Australia in 2005. Since then she has applied her chemical skills and knowledge to a variety of fields including environmental science, food chemistry, air quality and forensics. Renée specialises in analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis, with particular emphasis on gas chromatography and advanced molecular separation techniques. Renée currently works for the Australian government researching the chemistry of transportation fuels and is also completing her PhD at Monash University.